NEW YORK -- In the decade Sarah Tetley has worked with college students, she's seen a change in care packages sent from home.
The box of homemade goodies "is something of a lost art," says Tetley, director of the First Year Experience program at Webster University in St. Louis. "And it's sad, because there's nothing like seeing a student get excited about a package from home."
The change is partly because parents are more in touch with kids, thanks to cellphones, than they used to be: "They don't send as many care packages because they just talked to them," Tetley said.
But it's also due to a rise in commercially prepared options -- not just generic gift baskets, but care packages designed specifically for college kids. And those parents who do pack their own care packages are apt to skip homemade brownies in favor of laundry pods, and get their "ty" via text.
The pre-made care package
GourmetGiftBaskets.com "started to see a trend emerge a few years ago" with more orders sent to campus addresses, according to spokesman Chuck Casto. So the New Hampshire-based company introduced products like the "Exam Cram Care Package," which includes microwave popcorn, cookies, candy, chips and pretzels. They've sold thousands of them, with sales up 75 percent this year over last.
Many colleges also offer in-house care package programs. At Connecticut College, parents can order the $35 "Birthday Bash," with a cake or cupcakes, or "Health Nut," with fresh fruit, rice cakes and yogurt smoothies, $25. The packages are made in a dining hall for same-day pickup.
Minimus.biz also offers a "College Student Care Package of the Month," with themed packages like the Dorm Laundry Kit and the Dorm Medicine Chest.
Andy Fortson, 27, co-founded CoedSupply.com after looking online for something to send to a brother in the Marines and a cousin at Penn State. "I was pretty appalled by the options," he said. "They were overpriced and full of junk food."
So he and a friend launched a hipper alternative last year with a monthly mix of health-food snacks, personal care items (like Old Spice or a new fragrance from Rihanna) and entertainment (such as CDs), ranging in price from $16.50 to $35 a month. "The response has been overwhelming," Fortson said. "We're already shipping to colleges in 45 states."
Kelley Garland, a sophomore at Providence College in Rhode Island, saw a post about CoedSupply.com on her school's Facebook page, asked her mom to sign her up, and says she loves "having that little surprise at the beginning of every month."
From home, with love: Clippings and cookies
Parents who do send care packages say socks, laundry pods (premeasured detergent packs) and cookies are staples. But they also say it's not so much about sending necessities as it is a message of love, from home.
"There's no way I can send him a copy of 'I'll Love You Forever,' even though that is what I feel like reading right now," joked Jill Troderman of Soquel, Calif., referring to the classic children's book about parental devotion.
But she did send her son at the University of Washington socks, a flannel throw and homemade chocolate-chip cookies. She figured he could share the cookies with friends since he's a "bit of a health nut ... he doesn't want to gain the freshman 15." (For the record, researchers say it's a myth that college students gain 15 pounds their first year -- it's more like three or five pounds.)
Laura Kessler tries to send monthly care packages to her two sons, but she "can't bake to save her soul," so instead sends things like Nutella and trinkets. Asked to name a favorite item from one of mom's packages, son Brian Kessler, a sophomore at the University of Dayton, posted on Facebook, "Gonna have to go with Silly String."
Dori Wile's daughter was raised in Texas but is now getting a master's degree at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, so she wants "anything unique to Texas." Wile sends condiments from the regional Whataburger chain, Mexican spices, and pictures: "The kids today don't print out photographs. This way they have something to put on their fridge."
Twentieth-century college kids often received envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings from home, but today's parents email links to articles of interest. Still, one mom snail-mails the local police blotter to her son if a kid they know gets arrested, writing on the clipping, "Don't let this happen to you!"
And Inez Caspi of Bellevue, Wash., sends to her son at Claremont McKenna College in California "articles on safety or drinking or use of cellphones," along with columns about playing bridge, one of his favorite pastimes, and "an occasional comic strip, usually mocking moms."
Some moms send condoms. Mary Kay Russell of the Chicago area has sent her three college-age sons "a Costco-sized box of prophylactics."
Parents of kids at Baylor University, a Christian school in Texas, have different priorities: They hold parent meetings around the country to assemble care packages together, and they tuck Scripture verses in with the toothbrushes and snacks.
Saying thanks by text, post or vine
When it comes to saying thank-you for the effort, acknowledgments are often by text ("Thx" or "ty") or pictures posted online. "I've even seen a student taking a Vine using all the things inside the care package, saying 'Look what my mom bought me!'" said Tetley, referring to the app for six-second videos.
Jackie Parker sent her daughter, a freshman at the University of Missouri at Columbia, a Starbucks gift card two weeks ago and was happy to get back, via text, "a picture of her drink and cake."
Julie Davis sends her son Sam black-and-white cookies -- a New York City specialty -- from a Manhattan bakery because it's something he can't get at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "The kids are so independent these days, they have access to everything, and it makes it harder to find something to send them," she said. She knows he's received the package when she gets his one-word text: "Amazing."
Kate Sutherland posted a picture on Instagram and Facebook when her mom sent a "make-your-own party kit with princess stuff and decorations" for her 22nd birthday last spring -- one of many care packages she received as a student at the University of Tennessee-Martin.
"My friends thought it was really neat -- I think everyone got a little jealous," Sutherland said. "You really don't see the homemade care packages that much anymore because it's so easy to get on the Internet and ship something."