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.