Colleges Aren't All the Same, but You Wouldn't Know it From the Campus Tour

It's that time of year when high school students and their parents are visiting college campuses. This year, I've been on my second go-round, visiting colleges as both a parent and a university administrator. Time and time again, after reading the brochures, listening to the information sessions, and experiencing the tours, I find myself dismayed. The information that parents and prospective students generally are given, and the information that we visitors need, have little overlap.

The choice to live in a particular residential college community is a deeply significant one. It's as weighty as the choice of what sort of profession or job to choose, what company to work in, and what residential community to join. It is, after all, these choices, over the course of a lifetime, that determine our growth and development. These decisions determine what our contributions, to self, family and society, will be. Naturally, we must make these choices with care -- and information.

Which is why I'm struck by how little distinguishing information a campus visit can provide. Over and over, the tours turn out to be the same. My second child Sophie tells me, after visiting a number of colleges, that she's now fully prepared to give any small liberal arts campus tour by herself. The sameness that colleges present is counterproductive. Different colleges -- just like different professions, different companies, and different residential neighborhoods -- offer different environments. Knowing those dissimilar environments, and how one might flourish in them, or not, is the essential question in the college search.

Fortunately, just as in choosing a job or a neighborhood, there are many ways to gain information if one has the time and inclination. It takes stepping out from the campus tour, or the corporate interview, or the home tour, and immersing oneself. It takes watching, listening, striking up conversations with others, and making contacts and follow-up calls or visits. A fully scientific process it's not. Residential colleges are, however, among the most open communities around the country, more open than many a corporate culture and neighborhood. And so what prospective students and parents can learn is very real -- and helpful in discerning the right place for the student to flourish over the next four years.

My older child Ruth and I reached this conclusion three years ago. After she had earlier visited four campuses, each for a half day, she and I decided to head for a fifth campus -- but this time allowed ourselves more than a half-day to explore. After the requisite information session, and after taking separate campus tours, we compared notes. We were unimpressed. Yet, because we had talked with alumni who were family friends, we suspected that there was more: that the campus had an unusual musical culture, one in which certain sorts of students could thrive more than elsewhere. We decided to take some extra time and see if we could find it.

We consulted an online schedule of activities, and we found a student-organized event showcasing original student compositions that evening. There we encountered something unexpected. The room was packed with students. More than a few had brought food from a dining hall or elsewhere, showing us that for these students, the event was anything but an afterthought. Watching so many students arrive and become deeply interested in the student performances, we were stunned. Sure, every college has student performances. This event, however, was unusually student-initiated, and, even more impressively, student-appreciated. Ruth and I felt that we had come upon something distinctive about that college, something significant enough to affect how a creative, musical student might thrive.

Buoyed by the sense that there was more to discover, Ruth immersed herself further. She visited classes and spoke with students before and after each class, asking those students for impressions and further class recommendations. She shared a meal with still other students, listening to their interests and conversation. And the next night, still testing the claim that the musical culture of this residential community was unusual, we attended two more events: a choir concert and a second original-composition evening. Again, the events were well attended, and again, they were unusually appreciated by other students. We knew much more how choosing that college would amount to choosing a particular environment. And on the ride home we thought through Ruth's own interests, and the environments in which she might flourish most.

We honed Ruth's criteria for selecting a college, and we did so by asking those natural questions all of us ask when we consider moving from one place to another. We ask if the way we will spend most of our days -- whether studying or working -- will be rewarding and challenging. We ask what sort of education, mentorship, supervision, or training will be available to assist us in developing our skills and talents. We ask whether those with whom we will spend our days, and those who live near us, will have interests that we share. We ask about the availability of activities and facilities for recreation -- for walking or biking, or for sports and other interests. We ask about the residential neighborhood we would join, and whether we would belong in it. And perhaps above all, we ask which of these aspects are most important to us, for it is in the right balance that we will thrive.

Prospective students ought to ask the same questions of the colleges they visit. Will the classes and other activities be rewarding and challenging to me? What sort of education, mentorship, supervision, and training will develop my skills and talents? Will I thrive more with close mentorship, or only occasional feedback? Will I find in the campus community others who share my interests? Will I have places that support the sort of reflection and recreation that suit me? Is the campus traditional, corporate, or something in between -- and will I belong? And which of these aspects are the most important if, as we might expect, no community has the perfect balance?

Wrestling with these questions, Ruth discovered that she had two primary criteria for how she wished to live and work for the next four years. First, she wanted those with whom she would spend most of her time -- that is, her fellow students -- to say intellectually interesting things, in class and out. Second, she wanted a student community, as evidenced in the residence halls, the dining spaces, and the library, that was open, tolerant, and supportive of many ways of living. Having determined these criteria, and six careful college visits later, Ruth gained the information she needed about the choices before her. She found one college that she understood would fit her especially well. She applied early decision and enrolled. And she is thriving.

Keeping these questions in mind also helps put in perspective much of the recent commentary about higher education regarding financial metrics, unbundling, and so on -- all of which can serve to distract prospective students and their parents. Statistics on average loans taken out, average earnings after graduation, and other financial considerations are significant of course, but they should not be granted any more weight than those same statistics play in other choices we make in life: what profession to begin, what company to join, what neighborhood to live in. After all, sometimes the prospect of gaining more skills or experience, or finding kindred spirits, or realizing one's potential as a well-rounded person, is more significant than financial concerns.

Choosing a college well is choosing how to construct a life, combining work, community, and meaning, through which we will flourish. It's the essential question we all face. And helping students recognize and address that question with information and confidence may be the greatest gift we can give them.