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Are Parents the New Digital Divide on College Campuses?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Haley Myers Dillon
May 10, 2016

The new digital divide on college campuses is not about students, it’s about their parents.

How do we communicate with students’ support systems when those people expect to receive information in hard copy via postal mail? How do we engage with these groups who need events and engagement opportunities to occur outside regular business hours, on weekends and to accommodate multiple generational needs, including dinner for younger siblings? Hard-copy communications sent via U.S. postal mail and in-person events held on nights and weekends may work for some K-12 school districts, but at large, public universities, these methods are not supported by public budgets.

I work for the parents of college students. I run a program, for a large, public university, called Parents & Families. The program was established to help set parents’ expectations about college, to communicate with them and share information during a transition time when students become the client.

In 2015-16, the program began shifting to serve a population different from the population it was established to serve in 2012. The resulting challenges of communications, information and events are numerous.

From kindergarten through the senior year of high school—12 years—the public school system communicates with parents through permission slips for field trips, phone calls to verify absences, scheduling in-person parent-teacher conferences and report cards mailed home. Many schools also provide access to mobile applications such as InfiniteCampus, which allows parents to see students’ grades.

HM - NewDigitalDivideOnce students get to college, an institution’s communications with parents and parents’ access to information about their students changes. This is due to a law called FERPA—the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act—which states that students have a right to privacy. Students can waive that right and allow parents access to information about grades and financial information, but in general, FERPA means the college student becomes the “client,” or primary point of contact, for official university communications—regardless of who pays the bill.

The Parents & Families Program at my institution was established to help parents anticipate important information, such as payment deadlines, that students may not know about or think to mention to their parents. Since its inception, we’ve encountered a challenge in serving parents of first-generation college students: how can we distribute information to thousands of people when they live in different geographic regions?

Since 2012, the program has used websites, email and social media, as well as a few well-timed in-person events. Parents & Families Program sends an e-newsletter once a month, posts weekly to Facebook and Twitter accounts and hosts large-scale events and workshops before college students’ big transitions including Orientation, Move In Day and Homecoming/Family Weekend.

The challenge has become figuring out how to communicate with thousands of parents in a cost-effective manner who are not online. According to Katharine Zickuhr of Pew Internet Research, “Internet use remains strongly correlated with age, educational attainment and household income.” Zickuhr explains that, “Fifteen percent of American adults do not use the Internet at all and another 9 percent of adults use the Internet but not at home.”

Sacramento State’s Parents & Families Program serves a large number of first-generation college students—the first in their families to attend college. Their parents may live in another country half of the year. Parents may work two or three manual labor jobs. These individuals may be single parents. They could be physically displaced or homeless. Many do not speak English and even more speak some English, but not as a first language. Others may have a number of commitments and a lifestyle that does not exist online. Electronic, scalable communication does not work.

First-generation parents whose first language is Spanish, Hmong and who work in demanding jobs do not use Facebook to learn about college events or campus life and do not have email accounts to receive messages about upcoming university deadlines. These parents and families are tired and it may not be feasible to get to a campus event, even after work hours or on the weekend.

How do we effectively communicate with them? The home visit of the K-12 years is impractical. What other options are available?

This column serves as an inquiry to other public administrators who face the same challenge: with a small public sector budget, how do you keep a large constituency proactively informed when they are not accessing the Internet?

AuthorHaley Myers Dillon is founding director of Sacramento State’s Parents & Families Program. Haley has a master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration from Sacramento State and a bachelor’s degree in English from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Contact her at [email protected]

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