Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Choosing Schools: the Campus Visit

It's campus visit season, and TBTAM is off with her daughter visiting college campuses. That got me reading, and reading made me think, and thinking made me write.

I basically half-assed my way through my one campus visit. My Dad had some business on a weekend during the summer about half-way to the school, so we went to his business, and then went to my campus.

The one thing I remember is my Dad walking into some restricted area, and my being very worried that someone would come and we'd get in some huge trouble. My Dad kept telling me not to worry, but I kept fretting.

(Later, when I learned terms like "privilege," this scene stood out to me as the archetype of male, middle-class, white privilege. My Dad was a middle-class white guy in a suit; he knew that if someone saw him, they'd assume he was official, and it was okay. And even if they recognized that he didn't belong there, they'd politely ask him to leave, or offer to show him the super top-secret restricted area.)

But, of course, it being a weekend during the summer, there was NO ONE around campus, nothing open. The campus was beautiful, but totally unlike itself during the academic year when I would be there.

Okay, so I didn't know better. My Dad was doing his best, but his own college experience was a while earlier, and a very different experience from my own.

Since about half of NWU students are first generation college students, I'm betting their families could use some help putting together the college visit. So here goes.

Realistically, most schools are competing for students in the US these days. But if you read some newspapers, you'll see a lot of talk about how competitive students have to be to get into a "decent" school. Be wary of that talk. (Unless you're really committed to Old Ivy, in which case, I'm not much help.)

The US News and World Report rankings skew in certain ways, and so schools game the rankings if they can. One way to game the rankings is to decrease the percentage of applicants a school admits. You do this by encouraging a LOT of students to apply, knowing they really stand no chance of getting in (because you aren't increasing enrollments). If you want to accept 100 students (hoping for a class of 80, perhaps), and you could get 500 students to apply, then your "selectivity" rating looks great, and you get all those application fees so gaming doesn't cost the school anything. It does cost the students a lot, though, and more than money.

Most schools are competing for students, so when you go for your visit, think about how they're competing, and what looks good to your 18 year old. And think about the things your 18 year old might not be thinking about yet.

New dormitories and recreation centers are big these days. Students love the idea of new dorms, semi-private rooms, free internet access. And being comfortable in a living space is a good thing, indeed. But a campus that's putting a load of money into new dorms isn't putting it somewhere else, right?

Before you visit, get a copy of the catalog or look at it on-line. Think about the kinds of things your student is interested in, and the majors available, the size of the school, the location, general education, and so forth. College catalogs should be treated like fantasy dream books; they've got all these incredibly interesting classes, and students get to dream about taking them.

If your student wants to major in Old Norse, then you'll only be looking at pretty major R1s. But your student is likely to change his/her major, so don't be surprised if the Old Norse major decides to study Geography and then Social Work. (Before you become too anxious about the possibility of future employment with an Old Norse major, look through the AAC&U website, and read about the value of a liberal arts education. You might even want to talk to your student about what a "liberal arts education" is. I've yet to have a first year student who knew that our campus prides itself on that. But they know we have good scenery and a good reputation.)

But also keep in mind your local community college, because they offer great opportunities for a lot of students.

So, what to do on your visit?

First, try to visit on a weekday during the academic term, and call ahead to see if you can arrange for your student to sit in on an introductory level class in some field or other. Anthropology is a good choice, or geology, or sociology. Your student will get a sense of how big introductory classes are. At some schools, the lecture hall with have 200 or more students, at others 20. After a few campus visits, your student will get a sense of what s/he's looking for.

While your student is observing a class, go to the library, walk up to the reference desk, and ask for some help in finding some information, something you're interested in but don't know the answer to. When the librarian helps you find it, or explains how to use the system, then you'll know your student will get help at the library when s/he needs it. And yes, s/he'll need it at some point! (If it's a bigger school, make sure to go to the undergrad library.) Does the library look like it's in decent shape? Are there interesting displays? Study areas? New book displays?

Get a tour of campus. Notice how the tour guide is an especially good looking student? When I ask my first year students about why they chose NWU, at least one a year says the tour guide was really good looking. I kid you not.

During your tour, ask the tour guide about general education. If s/he talks about jumping hoops or "getting those classes out of the way," then general education isn't working well for that student. If, on the other hand, s/he talks about a system that seems connected and meaningful, it's working. General education is about 1/3 of a student's typical college work in the US; you want it to be meaningful for your student. When you previewed the catalog, you should get a sense of how the college thinks general education should work; if it looks like a mish mash, it probably is. Making general education really meaningful is one of the most difficult aspects of creating a college curriculum.

Ask the tour guide about what classes s/he's taking and who the teachers are, and about office hours. Schools choose their tour guides from the best students available, and if this student doesn't this student doesn't know teachers' names, or talk about their office hours, or remember what classes s/he taking, know teachers' names, or talk about their office hours, there's a problem. If s/he talks about this or that great teacher or class, then something good is probably happening.

Yes, your student will be embarrassed as all get out while you ask all these questions, which is all the more reason to send them off alone to observe a class.

Don't go observe the class with your student, though. It's disruptive to a class to have a visitor (if the class is smallish, say 30 people or fewer), and more disruptive with a parental looking visitor. But do wander through an office building hallway, and take a look around. Are doors open? Does the place feel friendly? Are office hours posted? (If you go during summer, things will feel less friendly, probably. Remember that your student will be there during the academic year.)


I'm sometimes asked (often at the last minute) to meet with potential students and their parents for a campus visit. I sort of blogged about this a while back, and a "mommy blogger" criticized me in her blog for not being enthusiastic enough about talking with parents because, as she noted, she was paying my salary. Well, yes, and my taxes are putting her kid through school in part.

Here's the thing, I'm fine with talking to potential students and their parents (the word "fine" was what she took exception to before). BUT, it takes time, and it takes away from all my other responsibilities. So if you want to talk to a prof, make sure your student has some questions to talk about, maybe some questions about the shape of the major or internship/research opportunities. This is the time for you to back off and encourage your student to make choices, speak, and be an adult. And yes, your student will probably be shy about talking to a professor. That's okay; I'm shy about talking to new students, too.

Please don't ask me what books your student should read because a) I don't know what your student has already read, and b) I'm likely to think about novels in really non-canonical terms, and c) the answer is always Shakespeare! duh!

Please don't ask me about dorm life. Or about the campus Christian crusade. (See the rainbow on the door? Don't be fooled by the three bibles on the shelf!)


The good news is that most college students graduate from their college, and most think their college was the best choice for them, often after some difficult struggles.

I went to four different colleges: an state R1, a community college, a state regional comprehensive university, and another state R1, in that order. And I taught for a short while at a private SLAC. Each of those schools was wonderful in it's own way. In my 12 years of college, I had perhaps 3 instructors who weren't better as instructors than I was as a student. (Parents sometimes talk about wanting "only the best" for their kids, but their kids probably aren't the "best" students.)

I loved my undergrad university, and only later realized that I would have done far better at a school with smaller classes, such as the community college, for my first two years. But I also had opportunities at my undergrad school that I wouldn't have had at probably any other place in my state. And I was smart enough to actually take advantage of a couple of those opportunities!


Edit to add: I screwed up the date the first time I posted this and left off the 3 so that it came out 4/2 instead of 4/23. And then I couldn't figure out where the post had gone missing to, and figured it was eaten by the ether.


  1. This all looks like great advice! I'd add one caveat, though, which was that the tour guides at my undergrad institution, and at some of my friends', were the most enthusiastic, but not necessarily the best students. I would imagine them as average, but not outstanding, sources of information for purely academic matters. That being said, maybe an average source of information is precisely what you want in that circumstance, but remember they've been hired to talk up the school!

  2. WOW this is great advice, every bit of it. Daughter is sleeping as I read this, but will have her look at it tomorrow while we are on the road (7 schools in 5 days, traveling through 4 states, driving up to 5 hours at a stretch...) Taking these tours is incredibly informative, and seeing a school and the students in real time is so different than just looking at it online. I highly recommend the process. We're probably doing it too quickly, there really is not time for her to be taking classes at this juncture, but it really is helping us get the lay of the land. We are looking at the small-medium sized liberal arts new england schools (you know them, I'm sure).The good news is that she has narrowed down her interests to 4 areas, all of which she wants to take course in (theater, art/photography, music and biology or science pre reqs for a nursing or a PA program post graduate) and we're gettng a really good idea of how different schools have different balances of these areas. Also of just how important place/feel and student community are to her, something that only a visit can inform.

    Thanks again for this helpful info.

  3. I was SO DUMB in this. I just wanted to get applying over, so I checked that I hit all of Berkeley's requirements (the "will be accepted" ones) and sent it off there.

    It was pretty much the only campus I'd been to, and that was as a tourist, never really looking at the university. I put no thought into size, or the shithole area I'd have to live in. I hated it. I would have been much better off (and later WAS much better off) at a smaller school. They do make sure they have excellent lecturers in the intro classes (chemistry, basic bio, etc), but with 2500 students in a class and they are all anal pre-med types who are jerks, I was almost guaranteed to be miserable.

    Berkeley is no longer the freewheeling, offbeat place it used to be. It is competitive, driven, and very doctrinaire about liberal tenets (sorry, but there I learned that liberals can be as dumb and closed minded as anyone). But I had no way of knowing this, because I never even went.

    And I went based on reputation - well, little did I know that most of that reputation is based on the grad programs. The only time things were really outstanding academically is when I snuck into grad courses, which was easy to do, because you signed up for classes online with no one watching/supervising. No fucking way anyone would have made a professor talk to potential students...though I think it is tremendously important, though I see how it could be an annoyance for you.

    Meanwhile, my girlfriends, my brother, all went to similar tier universities. With similar tracks of study, Davis and San Diego were MUCH friendlier, and much nicer to live in. And I was much happier than that in medical school, with a fixed class of around 100, where everyone is accessible (lecturers, secretaries, etc). Infinitely less prestigious, but in my case, also infinitely more educational.

    In short, a good education ain't that good if you can't stand being there!

  4. Wow, that's a fantastic post! I never knew any of that. (Well, we don't really have campus visits here, but it gave me a lot more insight into the American system).

    I really wish I had known more about choosing a university when I first went to uni. I would have done things totally differently. First I was just going to apply to my local university, because no one had suggested anything else, and anyone I knew who was going to university was going there. Then I decided I wanted to be away from my family :) so looked through course catalogs and found the three universities in the country that had a German program, which was what I thought I wanted to major in.

    Then I picked the one in the nicest city.

    Dumb dumb dumb.

    Most of all, I wish it had occurred to me to look at universities overseas at that point. I don't think I had any concept of some universities being more prestigious than others, or knew how much it would matter later on.

  5. I went on a whole bunch of campus visits, probably ten or a dozen, all told. What I remember most about the process is how incredibly prone to snap judgments my sixteen- or seventeen-year-old self was; I remember totally writing off one school because the students looked too preppy, and State Flagship U. because I went there on game day and there were a bunch of drunk football fans stumbling around at ten in the morning. (Well, OK, that might not be such a bad basis for a snap judgment, except it was the "football fan" part that put me off, not the "drunk at ten in the morning" part!)

    And I think I ended up having much warmer and fuzzier thoughts about the (future) Beloved Alma Mater than I would otherwise have had, simply because I visited on Earth Day and all the hippie kids were out in full force. It still wasn't my first choice, but I liked what I saw well enough.

    I think I was really looking for students who looked like they might think like me and value the same things I did -- which was a very understandable temptation, since I had spent four years being a bookish, left-wing misfit at a large public high school and I was sick of being the oddball. But as it turned out, one of the most valuable aspects of the education I got at the Beloved Alma Mater was being around kids whose core assumptions and values were quite different and generally more conservative than mine, and I don't think I would have had that experience at either of the Schmancy Private Schools in the Northeast that were my first and second choices.

  6. My own take is that there are some big differences -- size of college/university, location, etc. -- and it makes sense to think about those a lot. For those of us who were, like FP, "bookish left-wing misfits" (or even just bookish misfits!) in high school, I'd urge attention to the quality of intellectual interaction on campus. Of course, I -- like FP -- was prone to stupid snap judgments. So I think you advice to sit in on classes is particularly important, because that is what speaks to the quality of student/teacher interaction.

  7. this is great advice! and if only...

    so much of college choices end up being random. more or less. i was allowed to apply to only 3 schools, because of the cost of application fees -- and was not allowed to apply to the flagship campus of our big state U system, because [in 1975] my mother thought i'd become a hippie if i went there. [my husband and younger sister ended up there, and they did not become notable hippies. but they didn't like it so much, either, since it is freakingly enormous.]

    i did not get into my first choice, ivy league of the west, a place where i would have been miserable. did get into my second choice -- a small liberal arts college that two [2!] teachers thought was perfect for me, and it was. had a backup acceptance.

    we tried to do better when our daughter was applying. she made an idiosyncratic choice -- a rural out of state campus with more of a focus on science and ag, when she is more liberal-artsy and raised near berkeley.

    but she chose it for some reasons: it is far enough away to be a break from home, but close enough; they offer japanese, and lots of overseas programs, and she wants to go to japan junior year. the liberal arts classes are small and teachers are accessible! great band program! fantastic student support!

    she is in the ugliest dorm on earth, out in the middle of nowhere. she is meeting people from wildly different backgrounds. she's figured out the bus system, and gets out and about. last term she took sewing, and this term she is taking jewelry making, just for fun. my daughter is having a blast! still not settled on a major, but she only started this year, and now has a hundred more interests than when she began.

  8. oh, i should mention that we went for a big campus tour event at my daughter's school. what struck us was that everyone was so darned friendly and helpful. when we toured dorms, we heard the pros and cons. when we wandered into the music building, a grad student and another student just started talking to us, encouraging our daughter to pursue music even if it is not going to be her major. we heard a lot about how available the professors are, and that meant a lot -- especially the prof or 2 who told us. the advisors for undeclared majors were fabulous. and etc.

    there have been 3 or 4 times [that i know of] when professors have made a big difference for my daughter this year. i could not be more grateful. she didn't always appreciate it at the moment, but it was not long before she did.

  9. Kermit, You're right! Thanks :)

    TBTAM, I'm glad! Thanks for the inspiration. I hope your visits went well.

    MSILF, Exactly! And the perfect school for one person is someone else's idea of hell.

    Styleygeek, I know what you mean about prestigious. I had no clue.

    Quills, Oh, that too! I was so stubborn and sure of myself.

    Kathy A., I agree, so much of it is just weirdly random.

    Undine, thanks :)

    As you may see if you look up under the name, I've been blocked out because blogspot seems to think the blog may be spam. Or something.

    I'm frustrated because I've done some WAY cool things this past week.

    But I'm also keeping busy!

  10. that really sucks that blogger is treating your blog like spam. gah.