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When it comes to university choices, parents are more ‘Free Range’ than ‘Helicopter’ | HE Research Snippet #21

Our HE Research Snippets reveal interesting findings. 

Tags: HE Thinking

Andreanne Orsier, Higher Education Research Team
Andreanne Orsier, Higher Education Research Team

Andréanne heads up YouthSight’s Higher Education research team and helps universities drive commercial success.

Our HE Research Snippets reveal interesting findings. 

Our HE Research Snippets reveal interesting findings from YouthSight’s HE team. Please contact James MacGregor, Director of Higher Education Research, to be added to the list. The HE Research Snippet archive is here.

As we explored in HE Research Snippet 9 (Parents are attending ever-more open days, September 2013), parents are increasingly involved in prospective undergraduates’ university choices. Every HEI now has resources to help parents advise their child. But, the degree of influence parents wield is less clear. How far is parental influence displacing traditional sources of information, like prospectuses and open days? Are ‘helicopter parents’ increasingly making prescriptive choices for their children?

Our new HE Marcomms Monitor, part of our Decision Making Dashboard suite of HE data tools, answers these questions and reveals that the imposing ‘helicopter parent’ is apocryphal. Instead prospective students are making their own choices, with their parents playing an important supporting role.

We can root the influence of parents in the wider context of decision-making

Figure 1 - Advisers used extensively by prospective undergraduates - teachers, parents/ family, and careers advisers [YouthSight HE Marcomms Monitor 2016]Q8/9/10a. When you were [STAGE], which of the following sources did you use extensively to find out information? [Possible to select up to 5 sources]. Base: All prospective undergraduates eligible to answer questions (n = 4,854)


One popular narrative is of the ‘helicopter parent’ making sure their kid makes the right choices, for themselves and the family. To examine whether parents really are hovering overhead in large numbers, we need to examine parental influence in context alongside other people’s influence, and the influence of other sources of advice.

YouthSight’s new Decision-Making Dashboard, the HE Marcomms Monitor, can help. It examines from the point of view of the prospective undergraduates (and prospective postgraduates) which sources of information and advice are influential, in which areas, and at what stage of the lengthy decision-making process.

As Figure 1 shows, at each of the three stages of decision-making, roughly a third of prospective undergraduates are taking advice from a parent or other family member ‘extensively’. Parents are consulted much more so than either teachers or careers advisers. This ranks parents alongside the university website, the UCAS website, the hard copy prospectus, and the open day (chart not shown) as among the most widely used source of information.


For prospective undergraduates, parent/family are most influential at the last stage

The HE Marcomms Monitor also asks undergraduates to rate each source they used on its degree of influence. When we compare parents to teachers and careers advisers on how influential they are, parents are the most influential people.

When students are choosing universities for their UCAS form, 9% say parents or other family members are ‘very influential’, compared to 5% for teachers and 2% for career advisers. This gap grows when students are considering offers, with 13% saying parents or family member are ‘very influential’ while the teacher and career adviser percentages remain unchanged. Even then, however, only one in eight respondents rate their parents or other family members as ‘very influential’ at the zenith of their influence.

This contradicts the idea that there are large numbers of parents hovering over their children imposing the ‘right’ choices but instead suggests a more collaborative decision making process.


Parents/family are less influential than traditional sources

When we compare the influence of parents and family to other sources, they’re revealed as much less influential than traditional sources of information, such as the open day and the print prospectus, at least in the first two stages of undergraduate’s decision-making processes. When potential undergraduates are deciding on which universities to put on their UCAS forms, the open day is rated as ‘very influential’ by three times as many people. Even at the point of weighing up offers, the open day remains more influential than parents.

Marcomms graph2Figure 2 - Influence of information sources and advisers on undergraduate university choice [YouthSight HE Marcomms Monitor 2016]. Q8/9/10b. How influential were each of the following at this stage? Base: All prospective undergraduates eligible to have answered part (a) (n = 3,640)


More ‘Free Range’ than ‘Helicopter’

These insights from the HE Marcomms Monitor give us no cause to think that there are large numbers of helicopter parents controlling their children’s choices. While parents and other family members are asked for their advice more than teachers and much more than careers advisers, even at their most influential they are substantially less influential than the open day.

There’s no evidence here of pervasive controlling parenting. On the contrary, these insights more create the impression that the ‘free range’ parent is the pervasive model, with many supporting their children through their process to help them discover for themselves their own futures.

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