Not too long ago, the role of college parents at the start of a school year was akin to employees at a moving company: fill up station wagon, drive to appointed destination, unload items and leave town.

Now, thanks to a growing recognition by colleges and universities of the changing roles and expectations of incoming college parents, these one-time pack mules for their children’s belongings are beginning to feel more like invited guests to a command performance.

The 21st century parent orientation is viewed by smart colleges as a retention and development tool. These schools realize that a favorable impression created from day one will probably encourage parents to pay their bills on time and to support their child’s academic performance and continued attendance.

But once the glow of a well-managed parent orientation has subsided, what else should college administrators do to build a bridge between their institution and the parents of their students?

Strategic and regular communication is a key to successful bridge-building. While some schools still view parents as casting a shadow over their college-aged children, a growing number of schools have seen the light and welcome the involvement and support of parents.

To better serve parents, forward-looking schools are building bridges by doing the basics – creating parent-specific Web sites or pages, offering parent list serves, inviting parents to an information-filled Homecoming or parents weekend, and staying in touch with print newsletters when they discover that e-mail access is not yet universal.

There is a role and responsibility for parents as well. Parents must realize that they are handing over responsibility for their newly minted young adult to that student’s school of choice. They must accept, indeed they should welcome, the fact that student affairs and residence hall life professionals, in addition to professors and academic advisors, will be watching and keeping their student’s best interests at heart.

Another key role for parents to play is in setting expectations for – and putting context to – the importance of dorm rooms and other facilities as they relate to the college experience. Many incoming college students have come to covet their own well-appointed room and their at-the-fingertips choice of the latest in electronics.

Parents should discuss this “stuff” with their young adults and try to teach them that academic learning and emotional growth are the really important issues on which to focus while in college. If schools begin to hear a message from parents that the words spoken in a classroom are more important than the grade of carpet for a classroom, then the bridge building will be moving from both directions and there will be a new comfort zone – for administrators and for parents – smack in the middle of the bridge.