Weeks before her son set foot on campus, Jennifer considered quitting the Facebook group she’d joined for parents of new students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The mother of one of her son’s first-year roommates had sent her a link to the group, which has more than 20,000 members, and she clicked on it looking for guidance on what to pack for him besides extra-long twin sheets. “Some parent wrote, ‘Make sure you stick a pool noodle in the gap between the wall and the bed,’” says Jennifer, who lives in Essex, New Jersey. “As soon as you’re telling me to buy a pool noodle so my precious son’s precious phone doesn’t fall on the floor if he drops it, I’m out.”
Facebook groups for parents of college kids have become mainstream organically — in a way, joining is the final, triumphant step in the arduous college-enrollment process. Some groups are schoolwide, while others are specific to a cohort — graduating class, dorm, fraternity or sorority, team sport. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, there are groups for Indian parents, parents who live in the Bay Area, and parents with safety concerns. For the most part, parents form and run the groups themselves, though some colleges (including the University of San Francisco, Emerson College, and UW-Madison) take the lead and have university employees moderate. That’s because parent Facebook groups can drive revenue via increased student enrollment and retention rates and keep parents from pestering administrators, according to the marketing agency Ellison Ellery, which has worked with Western Carolina University and the University of Central Florida.
Parents join the groups for many reasons: to access packing lists, view dorm layouts, or find detailed instructions for building bespoke bunk-bed headboards. Some join to ask whether their kid needs a car or whether $150 a month is enough for food. Other parents just have a vague sense, as Jennifer puts it, that they “need to stay on top of things.” Regardless of the reason they join, parents often portray these groups the same way: as landing pads for helicopter parents short on fuel who want to orchestrate their kids’ lives at the precise moment they are meant to become independent. Some also say that the groups are a steady source of entertainment, particularly for mothers and fathers who have loosened their grip on their kids but still relish a little group-chat drama.