One of my friends from work is on the road, doing some college visits with his daughters. They’re on the upper eastern swing, looking at schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and probably a few extra places added in.
I never did any college visits when I was a kid. I knew that Ohio State had a good journalism program and I was interested in journalism, I knew it wasn’t expensive, I knew I could get in, and I was a fan of the football team. It was an easy, if not particularly informed, decision. And it worked out pretty well, because that’s where I met Kish and I got a pretty good, reasonably priced college education to boot.
But sometime between the early ’70s and, say, 2000, the world changed dramatically. Perhaps because of the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the “best” colleges, or because there seems to be more information available now, or because high schools are far more focused on student placement — or because parents are much more competitive about their kids’ college destinations — the college decision has become a super big deal. College visits are now an expected part of the selection ritual, and Kish and I accordingly went on our share of them with Richard and Russell.
My friend reports that he is enjoying his trip, and I enjoyed them, too. I think parents inevitably do. Why not? You are visiting idyllic green quads filled with old trees and young students, touring beautiful old buildings and libraries, walking past pillars and under stone archways, and listening to student tour guides tell you about the campus traditions — all of which end up being pretty similar. The visits fall into a kind of rhythm, with breakfast and a drive to campus in the morning, a guided tour followed by an information session, then lunch and a drive to the next nearby campus to do the whole thing again. You get to spend lots of quality time with your kids, trying to talk about an important decision they will be making and sharing some funny incidents. The student tour guide who had a clothing malfunction on Richard’s visit to Brown University, and the “Buddy incident” when Russell first visited Vassar, have become part of Webner family lore.
I don’t think it’s as much fun for most kids, though. They’d probably rather be hanging out with their friends than their parents, and I’m sure the school choices seem overwhelming. Kids fall back on first impressions and gut instinct — whether it’s sunny or raining, and whether students are friendly or distracted, seems to dictate a lot of the decision-making process — and often seem to just want to get the whole thing over with.
I think college visits are important, but I think parents have to guard against making them into high-pressure events. It’s one area where the perfect definitely can be the enemy of the good. The goal shouldn’t be to find the “perfect” school; instead, the visits are a good way to show that there are lots of good schools out there that offer the kinds of options that fit with the kid’s interests and that would be good places to spend four years. I think that’s a healthier message than endlessly debating whether one school is marginally better than another in the quest for the transcendent college experience.