April 10, 2009

More notes on college visits

I'm continuing my series of notes on college visits (the last one was from the fall). Thanks to frequent-flyer mileage, my daughter's spring break, and a few other things, we're spending almost an entire week in a part of the country where my daughter has never visited. I've been in one metro area before, but not for an extended period of time, nor with enough time and transportation to investigate the place well. And for one of the colleges, we went a good ways away from the metropole to a part of the country and a geomorphological area I haven't visited, either. We still have a few days left here, but the schedule is much looser tomorrow than it has been, so I'm not stealing that much from my sleep to type out these notes.


  • Reason #1 to visit the bookstore (confirmed now, after multiple college visits): see what's assigned. See which disciplines assign texts in all campuses, which assign trade paperbacks. See which English departments assign all Great Canon Collections (i.e., Norton anthologies, Riverside Shakespeare, etc.), which assign all non-collections, and which are a mix. See how many books don't come in on time (only possible if you're visiting close to the start of a term). See which bookstores have prominent posters advising students on financial aid what to do under various circumstances. (With the except of the last, creating broader access to this information is a hidden benefit of all the attempts to lower text costs for students: if colleges have to post what faculty are requiring, everyone will have access to the same information my daughter and I have acquired by browsing shelves. I still like browsing, but...)
  • Reason #2 to visit the bookstore on a public campus: chat up the bookstore manager. Ask what students are reading for pleasure. Ask what's the number-one error students make in buying books. If there are multiple staff members, browse quietly and listen.
  • One last item on bookstores: I've now come across two college bookstores without a general reading section, and the bookstore manager confirmed that as students have started ordering their pleasure reading online, it makes no economic sense for the bookstore to devote space to general reading. She's happy ordering books one-by-one for students who don't want to give up their credit card #s online, but she can't afford to have that chunk of space devoted to Calvin and Hobbes, Al Gore, etc.
  • After telling my daughter my previously hidden curriculum for making sure she sits in on a class at each campus--that by the time she goes to college, she'll have spent enough time in college classes that she can't feel like an imposter--she still wants to go to classes every campus. Then again, since the topics of classes included Mort d'Arthur, Shakespeare, and poetry, I'm not surprised. (I wish that someone would create a "video capture" setups that would work in a seminar or studio class; while I have the time and frequent-flyer mileage to take my daughter to various colleges, that is NOT available generally, and as I have said repeatedly here, there is something shameful in the fact that iTunes has perpetuated the myth of college classes as lectures.)
  • Then there's yet another reason for a prospective student to visit a class: so the parent can do more shmoozing during the free time.
  • Thought during one campus visit: "Wow. That's a unique demographic profile for this type of school, and I never would have thought about it before visiting, but it makes perfect sense."
  • Thought during another campus visit: "Well, that would have gotten the school in trouble 40 years ago. Probably did, too."
  • Explanation to my daughter about a different demographic pattern (at a different college) from the one referenced above: in the same way that there's chain migration, there's also chain application/matriculation, in part a deliberate institutional strategy.
  • One tourguide early on mentioned the famous campus quirky tradition that was a plot point in a novel written by an alum (and in the college's bookstore). Then again, I have yet to visit a small four-year campus that doesn't have at least one quirky student tradition, and I've seen enough quirkiness at large places, too.
  • Undergraduate research in science is the new astronomy in small colleges: ubiquitous and visible on campus. 
  • My daughter has seen far more birds of prey this trip than I have.
  • Only once in eight official or unofficial campus visits has the following explanation been relevant: "They were frozen vegetables put in a steam tray."
  • An admissions office in early spring can be a madhouse, with a mix of high school juniors looking and high school seniors deciding. I think I like the chaos a bit more than the more rehearsed admissions presentations at other times, or at least it gave me an opportunity a few times to gather a different type of information than I otherwise would have.

One more reflection: The only "safety-school" application possible is the total number of applications. How would you feel if a financial advisor told you to sink your investment portfolio into three companies and only three companies: a "safe" low-risk bond; and two companies with stock and varying levels of assumed risk? That's bonkers: you choose the overall level of risk you want and diversity across and within classes, and those of us without enough money to diversify by individual company invest in mutual funds (and now ignore the statements we receive). We've been talking about this explicitly in my family (if not with the same metaphor) to encourage sanity and from a realistic sense of how the admissions offices work in the colleges in which my daughter is interested. First, for the sanity: one of the educators in my daughter's high school evidently has had too much contact with parents who really believe that their children can improve their chances by adding one more AP class or adding one more extracurricular activity instead of challenging themselves to a reasonable extent and being themselves very well. So I've given my daughter full permission to stop at X AP classes (X being many more than I or her mother took).

That's reasonable not only because the "climbing the class rank" game is not a healthy approach to high school but also because college selectivity never has been and never should have been thought of in the way it became common to before or during my generation. High school counselors are still pushing the "safety school" and "stretch school" approach, and that advice incorrectly implies that the selection process has a monotonic function of likelihood (i.e., that you can predict the ranking of difficulty in getting into a set of schools both by attributes of a student and by the characteristics of a college). Schools that operate by a formulaic approach may do that, but for them, you know that the only things that count are GPA and SAT/ACT scores. If there's any qualitative judgment, it's both sanier and more rational to assume that if a prospective student passes a certain minimum threshold where the admissions officer thinks, "Okay, this student can do the work," everything else is a matter of admissions decisions on who would be a "good fit," and all of that to families just means a crapshoot. So treat it as such! Demonstrate you can do the work, and then be yourself and a very good yourself.

Chad Alderman has an interesting proposal on that point: that above the threshhold that a prospective student presents a reasonable expectation of success in college, colleges should just operate lotteries.

(P.S. Community colleges are no longer safety schools, not because they're turning away students but because they're not being given enough money for next year to have all the classes students need. A hunting license for classes is not safety.)

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Posted in Higher education on April 10, 2009 1:46 AM |