The summer brings many familiar family rituals; barbecues, beach vacations, sleepover camp and college visits. The college visit almost always includes at least one parent (and requisite high school student.) Other configurations include; both parents & high school student, both parents & high school student & other sibling. The high school student is as likely to be wide-eyed and humbled as he/she is to be petulant and infuriating. (It is interesting to watch the sullen teen rise and fall in his/her fevered pitch of resentment according to the hard sold enthusiasm of his parents.) These potential customers are given the tour of the property, offered one or two logo emblazoned keepsakes & given a shiny reference sheet (either in heavy card stock or in app form). It’s really like any other open house, except the “agent” showing the property is usually a current student and nobody asks about the taxes, energy bill or condition of the roof. In fact, it’s rather fascinating to overhear what people don’t ask on a campus tour. Questions about meal plans, housing, and campus celebrity appearances are a sure thing. Less common, but still overheard are questions about majors, athletics, and faculty accessibility. These generalist questions are quite appropriate given the fact that the tour guide is in fact a student. But deciding where to spend the next four years and perhaps $200,000 necessitates more than broad strokes.
Some potential students (and their entourage) sit in on a class. This is probably mildly entertaining for the visitors, but not entirely relevant. Summer school classes bear little resemblance to regular classes; they are small, often taught by graduate students, and are more endurance test than educational experience. To make a decision that could possibly pave the way for a teenager’s professional and personal life warrants more than a show and tell. Most people (unless they have money to burn) would not purchase a home without having an inspection first. With any large expenditure or potentially life-altering endeavor, a little crawling through the basement and poking at the eaves is in order. Real questions about specific majors, research opportunities, job placement, lifetime alumni support, 3-year baccalaureate degrees, joint degrees, advanced degrees, graduate school admission rates (and more) need to be asked and answered. (A college or university committed to transparency will have a website that will clearly and visibly answer some of these questions.) Depending upon the size of the institution, a student (and entourage) should meet with a college dean, dean of students or vice president of enrollment. Admissions officers are very knowledgeable and helpful but their area of expertise is that of the front end, not the middle or back end. The President of an institution will be approachable and perhaps a compelling speaker, but rarely has full working knowledge of how the sausage is made. The people who can answer specific questions about educational opportunities and outcome are those who wrestle with and analyze those issues on a daily basis.
There is a lot to glean from visiting a campus and getting a feel for the environment. Sitting in a college town coffee shop can be a heady experience for a 17-year-old kid. Picturing your 17-year-old kid in one of those sweatshirts, traipsing off to class can be overwhelming for a parent. It can be a very emotional time for a family. Is this the little boy I carried, is this the little girl at play? For some families the road to the college tour was bumpy and relief is the primary emotion in play. That’s why it’s important to develop a strategy before leaving the house. What do you and your student want to get out of an undergraduate college experience? What are your investment expectations? These are hard issues to focus on if your primary concern is the acceptance letter. Try as hard as you can to let go of that. Shopping is always a two-way street. You can’t possibly know if an acceptance letter is meaningful until you know if the school is the right choice. Modeling this research and course of inquiry to your student (and his/her sibling) is priceless. A college student is a customer and he/she should navigate higher education as such. Setting the tone before freshman year may very well result in empowering that freshman to ask questions and pursue opportunities throughout his/her higher education experience.