Communication Currents

"If You Can Dream It, You Can Achieve It"

February 1, 2012
Interpersonal Communication

Given the unsteady state of the current job market, most Americans believe that obtaining a college education is necessary for success in the workforce, and research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports this contention. Yet the National Center for Education Statistics states that 30% of students drop out during their first year of college and 56% of students who start college do not complete their degree. This disparity is compelling lawmakers, researchers, and parents to examine the variety of factors linked to students’ successes and struggles in college. Despite a direct relationship between family demographic characteristics (e.g., race, income, parent education) and rates of college graduation, education and communication scholars realize that these family demographics are only a piece of the educational achievement puzzle. As family and instructional communication researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Emerson College, we saw a need to investigate how communication in the family contributed to children’s success in college. 

Specifically, because many parents are eager to learn “what to say” to their children to encourage and support educational achievement, we sought to find out how certain parental messages about college predicted student success. To do so, we surveyed 419 college students about the most important message they could remember a parent telling them about college (i.e., a “memorable message”), as well participants’ perceptions of the message and their parents’ intent in sharing it with them. We also examined how these messages influenced students’ “success” in college, including cognitive learning indicators (i.e., students’ behaviors that exhibit learning), learner empowerment, college motivation, and satisfaction with college.

We found that parental messages about college are both meaningful and significant to college students. Students could recall their parents’ messages with precision, often citing their exact words or phrases. Overall, our research revealed that parents’ messages about college centered around themes such as working (and playing) hard, the necessity of attending college, and providing encouragement and support. These messages were overwhelmingly positive in tone, action-oriented, and global (i.e., applicable to most situations, rather than specific to their child’s experience). Parents imparted positive advice and support through these messages and generally understood the emotional needs of the college-aged children. 

For example, the most frequent type of message, Work Hard and/or Play Hard, illustrated how parents attempted to direct students to the appropriate or ideal approach to college. An exemplary “play hard” message is: “Don’t let your studies get in the way of your college career.” Likewise, the Support and Encouragement messages (such as, “I’m proud of you. I know you will do great.”) were directly focused on emotionally supporting their children through this time of growth, exploration, struggle, and excitement. In the College as Necessary theme, parents seemed to be trying to help their children make sense of their place in society in light of the recent economic downturn. An example of this theme is, “My dad told me, ‘The best thing you can do is get as much education as you can because that opens doors and allows you to do many different things.’”

Although parents’ messages were clearly meaningful to their children, the specific content of parents’ messages about college was found to be unrelated to their student’s success in college. Upon further investigation, we found that instead of the messages themselves predicting college students’ success, students’ interpretation of the message and the message-sender (their parent) were linked to success. Message characteristics included the tone of the message, the meaningfulness of the message, and the degree to which the parent seem to have the child’s best interests in mind. These characteristics were strong positive predictors of all indicators of student success, suggesting that the more positively students evaluated their parents’ messages about college, the more successful they were in college. Likewise, the students’ ratings of their satisfaction with their parents’ relationship with them also predicted all four college success behaviors, indicating that those who were more satisfied their relationship with their parent(s) were more successful in college.

These findings indicate that what the parent says is not as important as the way he/she communicates the message and the overall parent-child relationship. Children may make sense of a seemingly positive parental message in a negative way, depending on the context and relationship. For example, one participant recalled her parent as saying, “the smartest do not always have the most success, it’s (sic) the people who want it the most.” This “work hard” message could be interpreted as either supportive or oppressive, depending on the tone and relational context of the message, as well as the unique family environment. We can see that parental messages influence their children in complex and important ways. 

Our research is particularly applicable to educators, policy-makers, and parents. Educators can learn that students’ success in the classroom is dependent in part on their communicative environment at home. Students who are less satisfied with their parent-child relationship are more likely to perform poorly in school. On the contrary, positive home environments and messages may be useful resources to students. Educators may be able to tap into their students’ memorable messages and positive family communication experiences by incorporating self-reflective assignments, activities, and discussions as a means to give voice to students’ family experiences and messages. These exercises may help instructors work from a place of understanding regarding the messages students received before walking into their classroom.

 With education reform being a frequently contested topic in legislation, this research is important to policy-makers. Namely, these findings show that a college student’s success is based, in part, on their home environment. When creating legislation and programming addressing disparities in the education system, policy-makers should work toward creating programming to help build positive communication within families, particularly in at-risk families. These programs could be connected to high school college preparatory programs, college orientation programs, or through university offices of diversity.

For parents, results from this study indicate that although children will remember the messages provided about college, creating a positive and supportive home environment is most critical for college student success. If your child believes you and your message have good intentions, he/she is more likely to act upon your advice. Indeed, every parent wants their college student to succeed. In this time with increasing backlash against overparenting, anxious parents can rest assured that when providing your child advice about college, knowing the right “words to say” is not as important as creating and cultivating a positive and supportive relationship with your child.

About the author (s)

Haley Kranstuber

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Doctoral Candidate

Kristen Carr

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Doctoral Candidate

Angela M. Hosek

Ohio University

Assistant Professor