Is visiting college campuses an essential part of the college search or a waste of time?
That question was raised in a recent “Living With Children” column  by John Rosemond, the family psychologist, syndicated columnist and host of a radio show on parenting with the apt name Because I Said So!
Rosemond’s column was a response to the parents of a 17-year-old high school junior who wants to begin visiting colleges. They believe there’s no value to visiting, arguing, “We fail to understand how walking through buildings that all begin to look the same after a while and hearing a sales pitch from someone whose job depends on persuading an impressionable teen that the college he works for is a perfect fit for a teen he doesn’t know is going to result in said teen making a rational decision.”
The parents also admit that they feel guilt because their friends think they are neglecting their duties as parents.
So they reached out to Rosemond for advice. The college counselor in me wishes that they had reached out to their daughter’s school counselor instead, but the conspiracy theorist in me recognizes that they may lump all admission/counseling professionals together as co-conspirators in the college admissions equivalent of the military-industrial complex.
Rosemond, whose shtick is “tough love” parenting, supported the parents, telling them that neither he nor his wife had visited any college campuses before making a college choice and that they also hadn’t taken their children on any college visits. He cited the fact that his children all graduated as proof that visiting colleges is worthless and stated that the evidence that visiting campuses during the college search help students make rational decisions is “no, none, nada, zilch, zero.”
Rosemond even goes out on what he calls “a very short limb” to hypothesize that there is a statistical connection between the increase in college visits and the increase in the freshman dropout rate. He’s right -- that’s a very short limb, one I wouldn’t advise him to stand on.
But is he right that college visits have no value? Let’s examine the issues.
At its most basic level, choosing a college is choosing a place to live for the next four years. Would any of us follow advice that we buy a house or rent an apartment sight unseen?
I sympathize with the parents who wrote to Rosemond, worried that a steady diet of information sessions and campus tours may have a “nutritional” value similar to eating nothing but fast food. One of my favorite parts of Andrew Ferguson’s book Crazy U is his account of visiting campuses with his son. Each college features the tour guide who has mastered walking backward, and each college markets itself similarly, down to having its “unique” connection to Harry Potter, whether a sociology course deconstructing the series, a building that resembles Hogwarts or a Quidditch team.
Visiting a college as a prospective student can certainly resemble visiting a car dealership as a prospective buyer, with both making you want to hold on to your wallet and your sanity.
That doesn’t mean the experience is without value. Visiting at least several colleges serves two important functions in a student’s discernment process.
Visiting helps a student visualize what the college experience might look like, and it takes visiting several different campuses to develop a knowledge base about the similarities and differences among institutions. I fell in love with the first college I visited, the place I ultimately enrolled and graduated from, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized I had fallen in love with the idea of college more than the particular place.
It is also the case that colleges that look similar or even identical on paper have a very different feel in person, a reflection of each institution’s unique personality or culture. But is feel important?
Rosemond argues no, ridiculing a mother who told him that her daughter chose a college to attend based on the good feeling she had when she was there. Researching colleges should be a combination of information and gut feel, and it may be the case that too many students rely on gut feel, a consequence of the myth that every student will have the “falling in love” experience on some college visit. That does happen, but far less often than commonly believed, and in fact I would argue that those who don’t have the “falling in love” moment ultimately make better college choices.
That doesn’t mean that gut feel should be ignored, but rather explored. Gut feel is telling you something. I remember visiting a college campus as a prospective student, a place that probably would have been a perfectly fine choice for me, and not liking it for reasons I couldn’t articulate. Forty-some years later, I have figured out why. The tour guide was perky, and I have since come to realize that I don’t like perky all that much. More important, the college was traditional, with certain accepted ways of doing things, but I wanted a place where I could forge my own traditions and cultural norms.
Rosemond describes parents visiting colleges with their children as an example of what he calls “Cuisinart parenting,” the tendency of parents to make decisions for their children to a degree that the children never learn to make decisions for themselves. I share his concern with that phenomenon, although I prefer the term “curling parenting” (named for the winter Olympic sport where competitors rush ahead and sweep away all impediments).
I agree with him that a student who can’t fill out a college application or register for standardized tests on their own may be sending a sign that they are not ready for college. But that’s a different issue than whether parents should take their children to visit colleges.
I see the college process as a student’s first adult decision, but that doesn’t mean that a parent should be uninvolved. A parent should have a role in the decision, especially if writing the tuition check, and students should take advantage of their parents’ wisdom and experience. But adults function best as askers of questions rather than providers of answers.
Both of my children wanted me to accompany them on college visits, but we talked in advance about what my role would be. They set up the visits, I did the driving, and once on campus we either split up, allowing two sets of eyes, or I let them take charge, speaking up only to ask follow-up questions for clarification. We didn’t attempt the “grand tour” where you visit 15 colleges in five days and everyone is exhausted and not speaking to each other by day three.
The greatest value was the time together. In the car were those small windows where your teenage child opens up and tells you what they are thinking or feeling. That alone is worth the time and expense, and it is what commercials for MasterCard used to describe as “priceless.”