Saturday, October 8, 2011

Campus Tours on $5 a Day (and maybe one Paxil)

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Columbus Day Weekend. A time for relaxing and enjoying the best days of fall. Catching up on yard work, watching a football game, maybe firing up the grill for one last barbeque if the weather is warm enough.

Unless, that is, you have a junior or senior in high school. If that's the case, Columbus Day Weekend means one thing: college tours. This weekend millions of parents will discover the joys of following hyper-sociable students around campuses, listening as they tell your kids all the fun opportunities they will have for the low, low price of $50,000 a year.

Unless you had your high-schooler right after graduating yourself, chances are the whole college tour thing is going to be a novelty to you. Back when we were applying to schools (shortly after the close of the Civil War) you collected printed catalogues, brochures and The Princeton Review of Colleges and Universities (1980 ed.) From this exhaustive and entirely truthful material, you picked four institutions of higher learning (safety, reach and two in the middle.) You applied to these via an arduous process of typing onto the individual paper applications, using Wite-Out (TM) to "correct" any mistakes. (I apologize to any of our readers under the age of thirty. I realize the last sentence appears to be gibberish to you. Please just keep reading along. We'll catch up to the 21st century in a moment.) You were eventually received the coveted "fat envelope" in the mail, signalling your acceptance, and the next Labor Day, your parents stuffed you, most of your clothing, and a hot plate into the station wagon and drove you to the place that would be your home for the next four years. Unless it was the local U, for most of us the first sight of our campus was on moving-in day.

Times have changed. If you think your contribution to the college search will be writing out a check for an SAT prep class and nagging your kid to finish his essay, you're about to be sadly disabused. Today's seventeen-year-old will apply to nine or ten or eleven schools in less time than it took you to type up a single page of your essay "How Volunteering for the McGovern Campaign Changed My Life." And your kid expects to visit each and every one of them. Sure, you can go in the summer, but what good is that? How will Junior be able to tell what campus life is really like with only the admissions officers and groundskeepers there? No, there are really only two times to make your pilgrimage to the halls of higher education: April School vacation (when the universities are still in session) and Columbus Day weekend (ditto.) As someone who has made the rounds for one child already (and is gearing up for the next) I am here to offer you some advice for getting through the next few days.

Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. There's no point in trying to look stylish or attractive. All the young people you meet will treat you as a generic Mom or Dad, interchangeable with all other Moms and Dads. The admissions officers will see you as a giant walking dollar bill, much as Scrooge McDuck saw the object of his affections. For some reason, 90% of all campuses in America are built on steep hilltops, so you'll want footwear with traction. Try not to puff and pant too much - you don't want to be the parent who has to get a ride in one of the Public Safety golf carts.

Take pictures and have your student make notes once you're back in the car. After four days, two tours per day, you'll forget which school offered make-your-own-creme-brulee night and which one just installed a hot tub next to the student union. Which brings me to the next point:

Try not to gawp at the luxuries today's college kids take for granted. Post secondary education is now a consumer-driven experience. The mystery meat casseroles you remember have been replaced by organic vegan entrees and made-to-order stir-fry. The stinky gym which featured one weight room for the football team and a Jane Fonda-style aerobic dance class is now a state-of-the-art fitness facility with a three-story climbing wall and iPod docking stations at every treadmill. Interestingly enough, the actual dorm rooms are often the same cinderblock-walled hovels you recall fondly.

Don't recall fondly. Don't reminisce, don't let the words, "When I was in school..." pass your lips, and for God's sake, don't tell anyone about the time you got stoned with a bunch of theater techies and went skinny-dipping in the fountain in front of Dillingham Center. Trust me on this.

Do ask questions. Your helpful guide, who has been specially trained to walk backwards quickly whilst talking, will only be able to touch on certain aspects of the educational programs and college life. Then he or she will say, "Any questions?" For some reason, this strikes every student in the tour group mute, leaving you, the parent, to pretend you have a deep curiousity about the cross country program or the possibilities of studying abroad in Russia. You should NOT ask the questions you, personally, want to know, such as, "Exactly what drugs will be my kid likely be offered," and "Virginity--you got a percentage? Is it maybe trendy?"

At some point during the trip, you and your student are going to drive to a campus, head for the admissions office, maybe hear their pre-tour spiel, and your kid will say, "No. Not interested. Let's go." You will want to reply, "We just drove three hours to get to this damn school, and you want to leave now? The only thing we've seen is the parking lot!" Resist this urge. The tour isn't going to make him like the place any better. Use the time to hang out instead. Find a cafe. Have a coffee. Remind yourself that it's better to back out before the wedding than after.

Finally, have fun. If you can keep your mouth shut (mostly) and your ears open, it can be a great way to learn more about the person your child is becoming. Hours driving from college to college can, believe it or not, become a meaningful bonding experience. And if your son or daughter isn't interested in any schools within easy reach? I suggest insisting he or she add the University of Hawaii to their prospect list. You might as well have a campus tour you can really look forward to.


  1. Having worked at a large university, you can find an amazing amount of info online between the university website, departmental websites, school newspaper & local newspapers. PS Prepping for the babyboomers [us] was the last time the schools needed more housing space -- then subsequent years most were only able to fund for repairs - not new.. The shocker is in the delux off-campus housing offerings!!

  2. Loved this post, Julia, having been through this with 2 daughters. Yes, keep your mouth shut and eyes open!

    And I'd add during the decision making try to keep your oar out unless invited. The thing about NOT pushing your kid into a particular choice (once you've set up the parameters in terms of cost, etc.) is that then you won't be the one taking the blame when it turns out not to be a great fit. Lots of kids end up transferring after much sturm und drang, not to mention $$ down the drain. And if **their** choice works out great, they get the credit for making a great life choice. Good start, Ma!

    And above all, keep your eye on that lovely empty nest at the end of the tunnel.

  3. Ha, ha, you got it Julia! I actually loved visiting the schools--even went to a few with my nephew and sister when our process was long over. John and I saw a couple that we would have KILLED to attend--oh, the fireplaces in the studies, and the gyms better equipped than anything we'd seen, and the list of fascinating classes!

    Hallie, always astonishes me to hear you advising keep your oar out--you're a woman of many opinions! Apparently I was not as good at it as you:)

    Have fun Julia and all you other parents. My advice is remember there are a number of choices that would all work out well so don't panic!

  4. Hysterical and useful, Julia. Thanks! With my oldest a HS freshman, I can see I need to start practicing that "keep your mouth shut" thing right away. It's never been my long suit.

  5. Well said, Julia. The times, they are a-changin', for sure.

    My oldest daughter is 14 and 17 years older than my two youngest daughters. Her experience was like yours: no tours, just apply to the local university, live at home for the first year. Then she transferred out of state (there was this boy), and lived in increasingly alarming conditions.

    The younger two were the opposite, and the opposite of one another. The middle daughter, straight-A student from kindergarten, and I toured 25 schools. When I say "toured", I mean some of them were mere drive-bys. Boston University, for instance. I tried for half an hour to find a parking space until DD said she had no interest in living in what looked like a hotel for four years. (She ended up going to a brand-new engineering school near Boston.) The best part was bonding with her on all those trips. It took our relationship to a much deeper level, and that has persisted. We are much closer because of all that travel.

    The youngest, who went on some of her sister's tours, knew she had three choices: the local U, Air Force Academy, and the Citadel. She was actually nominated for the AFA, but before the nominees were chosen she was offered a scholarship to the Citadel, which had no military service requirement. That was an easy decision, but her four years there, in a population that is 94% male, was not easy at all. She did very well there, though.

    Excellent advice to keep our opinions to ourselves. No good can come of it, unless we are asked.

  6. This takes me back to those good old days, Julia. Even though dorms were acually in caves in those days and one of the required courses was "Fire--its importance to the development of homo almost sapiens" we did the college tours and thank heavens we did. My oldest had pretty much decided on Berkeley. Took one look and she said "This isn't for me." Went to Santa Cruz and loved it.
    But you are right in today's kids being spoiled and entitled. My son coaches high school and says the kids expect results without working.

  7. As a mom of two university kids, all I can say is Amen!

    Although I was way more excited about the programs than my daughters. They suggested maybe I should go back to uni and they'd go out to work.

  8. Oh, my goodness. This is fabulous. Send it to the TIMES! Or TIME. Or someplace--its fantastic.

    (I never did this..I lived in Germany my senior year. and smart-alec me worked as hard as I could to avoid going to college. Long story.)

    ANyway--good luck...what an exciting and life-changing time.

  9. [Groan here} In the midst of this madness right now - glad I'm not alone!

    Thanks - great post!

  10. Great post, Julia!!!(Makes me SO glad my DD is a few years post-grad...)