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Parent projects around campus Credit: Pete Lodato

They drove you to soccer practice; they guided you through the college application process. When it came time for dorm shopping, they made checklists. And now that classes are in full swing, they expect daily e-mails.

Some people call them "helicopter parents," and, somewhat improbably, they might just be the next big thing in college fundraising.

Family funding

Parents' associations and parent-aimed activities, aimed at connecting parents to the college experience, have been commonplace on campuses for the past decade.

But in recent years, college administrators at Penn and across the Ivy League have discovered the enormous - and for the most part, previously untapped - potential of parents as a fundraising source.

Fundraising is a big part of any parents program, said Rachel Sigman, the director of the Penn Parents Program. "What we try to stress is that every gift counts, and every gift helps make a difference. Tuition does not cover the cost of an education, so for us, getting that message across is important."

Having to sign those tuition checks doesn't seem to be too much of a deterrent for parents, since their donations are going strong - the Parents Fund raised $1.75 million last fiscal year and hopes to raise $1.9 million this year from 3,100 parent donors.

Six years ago, their total was only about $1 million.

As of yesterday, this year's fund stands at $40,354, with donations from 68 parents.

All donations to the Parents Fund are classified as unrestricted, meaning the University can use them wherever funding is needed.

Of the money raised by the Parents Fund, 51 percent goes toward financial aid; 24 percent goes to residential life; 16 percent goes to student life and academic programs; and nine percent goes to special initiatives like technology upgrades or the Penn Reading Project.

Universities tend to put most of their fundraising efforts into building relationships with alumni, but colleges have in recent years realized that parents have a giving potential all their own.

"Like all affinity groups, [parents] comprise part of the fabric of the varied and diverse interest groups that make up the many supporters of Penn's mission," John Zeller, Penn's vice president for Development and Alumni Relations, wrote in an e-mail.

Bringing parents together

The Penn Parents Program, now 20 years old, serves as a means to engage current parents and alumni parents and coordinate parent volunteers, as well as a University fundraising vehicle to encourage parent donations.

Parent volunteers make welcome calls to new parents before school starts, man a table during New Student Orientation and participate in fundraising phone-a-thons a few times a year.

Each year, the program heads the Senior Parents Project, which this year will beautify the Locust Walk Plaza at its intersection with 40th Street.

Past projects have included building the Platt Student Performing Arts Center and a study lounge in Van Pelt Library.

The Parents Council, a subgroup of the Parents Program that meets twice annually, represents over 50 Penn families from all classes and schools. They head fundraising efforts and organize regional activities such as welcome receptions for new freshmen families.

Nancy Kreider, along with her husband Steve Kreider, serves as co-chairwoman of the council.

"The parents who are involved are the people who believe in higher education and the work that it does, both in the undergraduate level and in the long term," she said.

And while she sees parent donations as an important way of giving back, she recognizes that not all parents are financially able to give.

"If you're on the edge trying to make your tuition payment, you're not going to have extra," Kreider said. "I think a lot of parents do what they can to help out, but I think it's understandable that not everybody can."

Across the Ivies

Programs similar to Penn's Parent Council and Parents Fund exist - and are growing - throughout the Ivies.

Elizabeth Webster, who oversees parent programs at Cornell University, said the past three years have seen a 367-percent increase in giving as Cornell has ramped up participation in its parents programs. She added that she expects involvement to double again over the next few years.

Parents "really adopt Cornell as their second alma mater," Webster said, adding that, "as this generation's millennials have come to college, they've come with their parents."

"A lot of parents are looking to be engaged," said Sigman. "If you've heard of the term 'helicopter parents,' it's being more frequently used in the university setting. I think parents are looking to be involved in their child's experience and give back."

Nationwide, colleges are beginning to pay more attention to parents: Later this month, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a professional association for development officers at educational institutions, is for the first time hosting a conference that will focus exclusively on cultivating relationships with parents.

This increased emphasis on parents "represents a significant shift in how [universities] think of constituencies," Webster said.

Parent fundraising numbers vary throughout the Ivy League, but in many cases, they can be a robust source of donations.

Although Brown University has one of the lowest endowments in the Ivy League, its Parents Annual Fund was the most successful throughout the Ivy League last year, having raised $4.2 million.

Princeton University, which has both a high endowment and the highest alumni giving rate of any college in the country, regularly raises over $2 million through its Princeton Parents Fund.

And some don't just stop at parents: Dartmouth College's program is called the "Parents and Grandparents Fund." Harvard University's program also pursues grandparents.

Willing to give

Parents of Penn students both old and new, seem to see the logic behind having a fundraising program that targets parents, whether they ultimately decide to donate or not.

Sarah Imershein, a parent of a Wharton and Engineering sophomore and a '76 alumna herself from Washington, D.C., is emphatic about the importance of giving back as a satisfied parent, no matter the size of the gift.

"I think participation is very important," she said. "If [a student is] happy, their parents should say, 'I'll give $5 to that.'"

Imershein is motivated to donate not only for her son's benefit, but also that of his classmates.

"If I can afford for my kid, maybe I can help some other kids who can't afford it," she said.

Janet Schaffel of Potomac, Md., whose son graduated in May, noted that parents donate "to reward the college for providing a great experience to their kid, and to do things that will enhance the reputation of the University so they'll have graduated from a great place," Schaffel said.

David Feldman from Elkins Park, Pa., both an '80 alumnus and father of a College sophomore, is very familiar with parent fundraising, having been involved in fundraising for his daughter's high school.

"It's a fairly commonplace kind of thing to solicit parents," he said.

Kreider spoke of the wider implications of donating to Penn.

"If you're in a position where you can give a little more to help Penn give a little more to fulfill its mission, you're doing a good thing for everybody," she said.

Each week, The Daily Pennsylvanian takes an in-depth look at an issue affecting the community. See Perspective every Tuesday.

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