Like swallows returning to Capistrano, spring always marks the flocking of parents with their high-school senior children to my college classroom. Nobly, parents take their charges on multiple tours of colleges and universities in order to make an informed choice on perhaps the biggest decision the family has yet to face.
As supportive as I am of their efforts, I always worry that their attempts might be in vain. Visitations at my college, as they are at every institution of higher education, are officially organized functions of the school. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement, of course, unless families rely solely on the official company lines to make their decision. After all, even the Soviet Union received glowing reports from Western journalists who only bothered to go on the “official” tour. If you travel to the school but don’t venture off the prescribed path, you might as well just stay home and read the brochures.
To more fully “see” a college, do the following:
Visit the library on a Saturday. This will tell you how difficult the school actually is and what groups on campus actually study.
Walk through the hallways in several different dorms. Universities always have a street or two made up of fraternities and sororities; a stroll down this lane on Friday or Saturday night is essential to fully grasping the collegiate culture. Remember: the “education” received at college is only partly academic; it is quite probably primarily social. As such, it is essential to ascertain the true atmosphere of the campus—something never covered in official literature or tours.
Speak with the janitorial staff. These folks can, and probably will, tell you the truth about the students and the professors. What they do, how they act, where they go, how they treat people. If you want the truth, go to the people who know and have the least motivation to toe the company line.
Converse with students, and not just the ones assigned to take you on the tour. Try to visit a class in a major of interest to your child. Then, have your child stop students after class to see what they think of the major and the school. You should stop some other students and do the same. With just a couple of quick conversations, you will come away with a much more balanced picture.
Try to talk with other parents who recently sent their children to that school. Your own high school may be the best source of information on this as staff there will typically tell your child the names of recent graduates who attended various colleges. With a little effort and probing you will be able to get advice from people who were recently in the same boat as you and most understand your concerns. If they have regrets, learn from their mistakes.
When combined with the official pamphlets and tours, the suggestions above will lead to a much more informed decision regarding a particular school. However, I urge all parents to do one more thing in order to prepare for college selection: read Tom Wolfe’s recent novel I am Charlotte Simmons.
Admittedly, this is a fictional tale taking place on a fictional campus; nevertheless, Wolfe offers his readers an inside look at the lives lived at America’s universities. And, he tells the unvarnished truth.
Recommending this book puts me in an uncomfortable position because the book is filthy. Though I’m not in the practice of recommending filth, I have to recommend this book because its offensiveness results from reporting the truth. And the truth is that much of our culture—particularly as it is experienced in higher education—is filthy. In fact, the more shocked you are by the book’s contents, the more you probably need to read it.
Parents simply must not put their heads in the sand and assume that dropping their children off on a college campus will automatically elevate their child’s thinking or life. “Higher education” frequently fails to live up to its name; just like schools frequently don’t match the brochure.
Follow the suggestions outlined above and your family’s choice of college will result not from instinct, assumption, or propaganda. It will be informed. What more appropriate way could there be to begin the pursuit of “higher education?”