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Making the Most of a College Visit

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, May 2003

If your family is like most families of college-bound high school juniors, you have recently returned from the traditional "If this is Tuesday, it must be Dartmouth" tour.

Originally designed to enable prospective students to learn about colleges' academic offerings and to compare libraries and dorms, the college tour has transformed itself into a familial rite of passage. At best, it is a valuable way for high school students and their parents to explore a carefully selected group of colleges. At worst, it is a tension-filled week spent negotiating unfamiliar roads, both geographic and academic. In most cases, the experience falls somewhere between these extremes.

In my work as an Educational Consultant, I spend much time visiting college campuses so that I can advise my client families on colleges that are most likely to meet their student's needs and interests. I generally avoid traveling during high traffic times, such as April vacation. This year, however, circumstances led me to join the ranks of high school families who were spending their vacation in crowded admissions offices, fitness centers that rival the most exclusive private health clubs, and college cafeterias that offer low-fat, high-fat, vegetarian, vegan, deli, stir-fry, pasta bar, and make-your-own sundae options.

In addition to becoming familiar with a few colleges that I had not visited before and learning about new developments at some old favorites, I had the valuable opportunity to join with families from all over the country as they followed their individual paths to Most Favorite U. While students and parents asked questions about admissions requirements and study abroad options, I asked questions of the families. I wanted to know how they had decided what schools to visit, what they were learning from their visits, and how they would decide where to send their child and their money.

I met families who were truly enjoying their college tour experience. These families focused on thinking about how each college might fit their child's needs as much as on the goal of earning an acceptance letter. They seemed to enjoy the time they spent exploring college campuses and new communities.

I also spoke with families for whom the college tour experience was a challenge. One mother explained to me that while her daughter and husband followed one itinerary, she had detoured to another group of colleges. By dividing the colleges, the family would cover eighteen colleges in four days. On the fifth day, they would return to their two or three top choices for a second visit. The family had followed a similar schedule during their child's February vacation. When I asked what this experience had been like, the mother described it as "hell."

I was sorry that I did not meet this woman's daughter. I wondered what the college tour experience was like for her. I hoped that she and her father had skipped a scheduled tour and had opted to sit on a bench eating ice cream and watching students go by. I hoped that they had left campus and gone shopping for new shoes. I hoped that they were having fun. I hoped that the student was enjoying some time with her father and learning something new about herself and her family.

I laughed with the mother from Pennsylvania who shared my umbrella during a tour of a very large, very wet, and very hilly campus. The woman had driven through six hours of torrential rain to make this visit with her daughter. Upon entering campus, her daughter declared that she was not getting out of the car because there was nobody on campus who looked like her. The lack of logic in this statement mysteriously evaded her, as she was still in the car when she made this observation, and the only person they had seen since entering campus was driving a golf cart marked 'buildings and grounds'. I'm not sure I would have been laughing if I were this mother, but I respected and envied her capacity to see the humor in the situation.

As I watched parents take notes during information sessions, I wanted to whisper caveats to them. "Statistics lie." "Burn your copy of U.S. News and World Report." I wanted to encourage the students to be both more discriminating and more accepting. I wanted to tell them to quit the "I don't want to go to any college that wants me" club. I wanted to encourage them to think carefully about what they want to get out of their college experience. When one young man told me that he was not really interested in the college we were visiting because it "does not have a name", I feigned ignorance to cover my dismay.

When one set of parents learned that part of my job is to help students make decisions about where they want to apply to college, they were eager to share their technique for keeping track of the colleges their son was considering. The spreadsheet they unrolled was complete and informative, and I was interested in the facts that they had chosen to include. As I sat with them during the information session, I was concerned that the information they were collecting was not giving them an accurate picture of the college they were visiting. The information they had collected was not untrue, but it was misleading because it was taken out of context. I hoped that this family's travel schedule would allow them adequate time to explore the campus and to test the validity of the information that they had collected.

Although I consider myself to be an extremely honest person, I told a lie to one man I met on this trip. I did not have the opportunity to explain myself and I regret that this father, living in a large midwestern city, is not likely to read this article and know what I intended to say. This father asked me a question about how U.S. News and World Report had ranked the college we were visiting. I told him that I do not read those rankings. In fact, I do read the rankings. I just don't give them much credence.

I think that everyone who has a professional interest in college admissions reads the U.S. News and World Report Best College rankings. Although the rankings are widely criticized by admissions professionals, colleges know that these rankings will have an impact on their applicant pool. Moving up or down a few spots can mean a significant increase or decrease in the number and quality of students who submit applications for admission. According to Robert Woodbury, former chancellor of the University of Maine, this annual publication is to the news magazine what the annual Swimsuit issue is to Sports Illustrated. Both issues are major money makers for the magazines, and both succeed because they are "sexy, glamorous, superficial and largely without redeeming social value."

Given how important the rankings are to college admissions, it is not surprising that the rankings impact policy decisions in both academic departments and admissions offices. Woodbury, writing in the spring issue of Connection, the journal of the New England Board of Higher Education, details strategies that some colleges may employ to inflate their ranking. As Woodbury notes, most of these strategies "contribute to bad public policy and undermine the integrity of the institution."

I believe that parents and students know that they are consumers of a valuable commodity and want to understand policy decisions that colleges implement. For example, it has been demonstrated in several studies that the SAT is a poor predictor of academic success in college. It may be true that a school's decision to make the dreaded SAT an optional part of a student's application reflects the school's educational and admissions philosophy. It is also true, however, that an increase in reported SAT scores is one factor that impacts a school's ranking. When submission of scores becomes voluntary, it is logical to expect that only favorable scores will be submitted and the college's ranking will rise.

The key factor in the U.S. News ranking has nothing to do with any objective measure of a student's undergraduate experience or the quality of the students who attend the school. The key factor in a college's ranking is its reputation, as measured by personnel at similar colleges. Not surprisingly, when students are asked about their college choices, reputation is also a major factor. Frankly, before I make an investment in something as significant - and costly - as a college education, I would like more reliable data than "they say it's good."

As I listened to one college representative's presentation, I was glad that I would have the opportunity to speak privately with him at a later time. I knew that we would talk in more depth about some of the points he had made in public. I knew that when the information session ended, I would explore the campus on my own and assess the validity and significance of the points the admissions counselor had made. I did not pose the 'hard questions' at the information session that I would ask later in private. These questions are appropriate in the confines of the admissions director's office. At an information session they would have appeared adversarial.

There were questions that I hoped the students in the room would ask. I was frustrated that these very bright students behaved as passive recipients of the information the college had chosen to offer them. Their questions were routine and superficial. Most of the information they sought was available in the college view book or catalogue. I hoped that these students would take advantage of another opportunity to ask more thoughtful questions.

As I drove home after five days of college visits, I thought of Mark, an engaging young man with whom I had eaten lunch at a highly selective college. Our paths had crossed at three colleges and I had had the opportunity to learn a bit about his interests and accomplishments. Mark told me that he had known since he was in first grade that he would go to an elite college. I asked him what would happen if he did not gain admission at one of the highly selective colleges that we had discussed. It was apparent that he had never considered that possibility.

I told Mark that I thought that he would be successful regardless of where he went to college because he has the qualities of a successful person. I told him that I believe that a person with his characteristics creates opportunities for success and accomplishment no matter where he goes to school. I told Mark of a study by Alan Krueger of Princeton University that compares the financial success of graduates of elite colleges with the financial success of students accepted at elite colleges who chose to attend a less-selective school. Krueger found that both groups of students had similar earnings. This suggests that the qualities that make a person a successful candidate for admission to an elite college, rather than attendance at the college, account for a person's success.

Mark was skeptical of Krueger's findings. He relayed anecdotal evidence that people who go to selective colleges earn more money than people who go to his local state university. I offered to e-mail him information on Krueger's study, as well as other studies looking at similar data. Mark declined my offer. He knew what his goals were and he was focused on reaching them.



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