January 5, 2022

How—and why—parents are getting more involved in the college search process


James Walton

We were surprised by the number of parents that attended a recent virtual College Night. Learn how VisitDays helps more parents get involved sooner in the college research process.

There are two types of parents that are involved in the college search process for their young adults—those that take a strong presence in the process…and those that do not. Sorry to make it that plain & simple, but that is quite honestly what we see on a regular basis with millions of young adults looking for college and career options during their last couple years of high school. My parents were the latter, they weren’t involved in the slightest and trusted me with my search (with some strings on “you better figure out the best option for yourself!”). I think we can all relate to both of these types of parents and let’s be clear, one is not necessarily better than the other.

Parents are often the “turbo boost” in the college search process, giving their young adults an extra push when it’s needed, or a pedal to the metal when the stakes are high and they really want to win a college spot for their child (the extreme version of this is “how can I make a donation to your prestigious institution?”). And conversely, when the young adult is well enough equipped (or unfortunately when a parent just doesn’t wish to participate), then that turbo boost is just not there and the young adult finds their pathway regardless.

We saw an interesting development in a recent virtual “College Night” VisitDays ran for the East Side Union High School District in the Bay Area, California. This is a district of 19 high schools and like most districts, lots of variations in terms of size, student/teacher ratio, and type of school (think charter and alternative schools). Mainly juniors and seniors from various schools took part in the College Night to learn more about the process. There were over 90 colleges and universities present, with 129 different live sessions in which students could interact with representatives from those campuses. But what surprised us the most was who came to meet with these colleges and universities…

56% of the attendees for this event were parents!
This astonished us but is an occurrence we have been seeing a lot more of lately. Was this because someone accidentally invited the wrong column of attendees in an excel sheet? No. Was this because students are less likely to attend college events than their parents? No.

To be honest, it was a mix of timing, format, and messaging. This College Night represented one of the first official opportunities that the district provided to their students and families to meet with curated colleges and universities.

Let’s set the mood. It was a crisp, Wednesday evening in the fall (10 days before Halloween to be exact) when parents were likely to be off work, and curious to know what timelines and checklists ought to be on their mind for their student’s college future. So the timing of this event was not a coincidence, but the perfect opportunity to get involved and learn more about the steps their young adult would need to make in the coming months. It wasn’t right after the summer when everyone’s getting back into the groove of things, nor right up against the holidays when we are all stressed out! And maybe even more importantly, the event was entirely VIRTUAL! So parents didn’t have to run from work to the high school. They could join from their smartphone from anywhere, including on the drive home, while still at work, or at home on the couch. The need for them to be at a particular physical place was no longer necessary.

But the messaging was also precisely geared to what students and parents talk about at the dinner table. “Have you thought about where you might want to go to college?” a parent might ask their student. Or “when are you going to book some college visits, fill out the FAFSA, and prepare your transcripts?”. The flyer below was used to market the event to parents and students.


So it wasn’t surprising that two topics on the top of most every parent’s mind when it comes to their young adult’s college future are the same two topics that were most heavily attended (and also why parents were extra incentivized to even attend): “How Do I Get to College?” and “How Do I Pay for College?”. These were can’t miss live sessions where parents could learn about the entire process AND ask questions that were specific to their circumstances. They could also leave with a wealth of contact information and entertaining videos from within the VisitDays platform that were related to the sessions. So although these are all great topics for any student, the mix of timing, format, and session topics really helped drive parental attendance.

You can call this increased parental engagement a trend if you’d like, but we see it as a key behavioral shift in the higher education industry. The industry just doesn’t change that often; it’s relatively been the same for decades with minor aberrations in online learning and alternative education programs. But when Covid-19 hit, we were all forced to do whatever was necessary to keep our schools and businesses afloat, and we had to do that with a big virtual component. And this just hinged onto the ongoing debate in higher education about value. Households were already thinking twice about a four-year college degree well in advance of the pandemic, and were looking at other options when it came to the ROI of your young adult’s future prospects. 

All the pandemic did was shift everything to online, but the key decision-making criteria was always there for students and parents. Now we are just seeing the needs of those parties being met much faster and more relevant when we can deliver that information in new ways. It’s not that parents never wanted to be as involved before, it was just that a lot of them couldn’t. The barriers were too great. The messaging was off. The physical location was too far. But now, perhaps parents can finally get their arms around what the entire process looks like, so that they can at least help their young adult with better informed decisions, more organized planning, and a lot less time searching for answers.


If you would like to learn more about our virtual event offerings, schedule a meeting with VisitDays to see how you can host your virtual events for prospective students.