College Planning: Real Questions For College Tours
‘Tis the season—my personal Facebook feed is filling up with pictures of fellow parents cramming in as many college tours as possible with their rising seniors before the school year starts. While there’s a strong argument to be made for touring schools during regular session, summer is when most of us have the time, and you can always make a return trip in the fall once you’ve whittled down your list a bit.
My daughter mapped out the schools she wanted to see, arranged for all the tours, put together a schedule and maps, and only needed my help when it came to hotel reservations. This makes sense, of course—it’s her education/plans, not mine—but it was a pretty symbolic first step towards independence, here. If you are tempted to be your teen’s cruise director when it comes to college visits, try to pull back. Let them work it out. It will make it a better trip for both of you, I promise. [Side note: On one of our tours, we met a young lady who claimed to have visited 30 colleges the previous summer, and was now on a 10-campus tour. She was only a rising junior, too. I have never met anyone else on a college tour who appeared to be so completely over the entire experience. It was kind of sad.]
There’s no shortage of resources for “Questions You Must Ask On A College Visit Or Regret Not Knowing For The Rest Of Your Miserable Life” types of things. And don’t get me wrong, they definitely have their place. (File under “oldie but goodie” if you must, but this 2010 list from U.S. News & World Report is a decent starting point.) Our experiences tromping around a variety of campuses brought up some additional questions I hadn’t seen elsewhere, though, so I share because I care. Here you go….
They say you should ask: What’s the average financial aid package?
I suggest you also ask: What percentage of students receive assistance directly from the college? (There’s federal money and independent scholarships, but knowing the size of the institution’s endowment and how much of that filters down to students in the form of tuition assistance is a good indicator of how they value their undergraduates.) What resources are offered to prospective students in terms of making the finances work? (All schools have a Financial Aid office; you’re trying to determine if someone is going to encourage your child to take out loans or if they’ll help them find grant money and scholarships.) How does work-study operate here? (Do you have to “qualify” based on need, how many on-campus jobs are there? are most students able to get a work-study job if they want one or is it a limited resource?) What percentage of students work off-campus?
They say you should ask: What are the average test scores/GPA of incoming freshmen? What percentage of applicants are accepted (aka, acceptance rate)?
I suggest you also ask: What percentage of accepted applicants opt to attend? Are certain “numbers” (test scores, GPA) required or merely typical? What tests are required for admission? (I was surprised to hear on several campuses that they’ve gone “test optional.”) What’s the process for applying and being accepted to an honors program or honors college, if offered? Do they offer Early Decision and/or Early Action? What are the dates on those? When do you have to accept admission and what sort of deposit is required?
They say you should ask: What does the student body look like in terms of diversity?
I suggest you also ask: What does the student body look like in terms of diversity in any given program? (The reality is that many majors tend to skew either male or female, and diversity on paper may look a lot like segregation in reality if only certain programs tend to attract a variety of students.) What percentage of students are from out-of-state? What supportive services are available to students? What clubs and organizations are offered on campus? What’s the process for starting a new organization? Is there Greek Life? If so, what percentage of students take part in that? If you want to see your tour guide think fast on her feet, ask her to describe a “typical student” on the campus. Also—particularly if you’re visiting over the summer—ask if they have a program where your kid could come back for an overnight while classes are in session.
Classes and Majors
They say you should ask: What’s the student/teacher ratio? What’s the typical class size? How often will you be taught by a grad student rather than a professor?
I suggest you also ask: What is the typical class size for a freshman? (Bear in mind that those “typical class sizes” folds giant freshman seminar classes into the equation along with tiny upper-level classes, and an “average class size of 30” may mean your freshman doesn’t see a room with fewer than 100 students in it.) How does class selection work, and how likely are you to get the classes you want? What percentage of students enter with an undeclared major? For any given major of interest, when do students typically start the major? (At my husband’s university, he teaches in a college students cannot even apply to enter until they’re rising juniors. My daughter’s intended major, however, is an intensive program that begins with specialized classes as a freshman; if a student were to decide to enter the program later, there would be no practical way to catch up without simply adding more time to achieve the degree.) What special requirements are there to enter a given major (audition, special exams, interview, etc.)? What percentage of students do study abroad and/or internships? What percentage of students continue on to a graduate program?
They say you should ask: How do students get around? Are freshmen allowed to have a car on campus?
I suggest you also ask: No, really, how easy is it to get where you need to go? (Most campuses have a dedicated bus system; ask how long you’ll typically wait for a bus if you need one. A lot of campuses also have a golf cart late-night service for if you need a ride back to your dorm after the buses stop running.) How close are you to “town” if you need it (this question will vary depending on the campus setting, obviously)? If freshmen are allowed to have cars, what percentage of them do? How much does a parking permit cost?
They say you should ask: What are the dorm choices? Are freshmen required to live on campus? What percentage of upperclassmen live on campus?
I suggest you also ask: Is housing guaranteed beyond freshman year, or scarce and determined by lottery? How are roommates matched? (Back in the Stone Age when I went to college, it was completely random. Nowadays we’ve seen everything from compatibility assessments to schools which offer something akin to a “roommate dating service” in allowing you to pick your roommate.) How much variability is there in the dorms? How does laundry work here? (We saw everything from in-suite machines to basement laundry rooms, and dorms where laundry was free and others where you could only use coins and others where you could only use your cash card. And at one school the laundry machines are on the wifi—you can check machine availability from your room and receive an automatic text when your clothes are done!) What sorts of rules do the dorms have about “quiet hours” and bringing in non-residents? What safety measures are in place? If there’s an honors college, do they have their own dorm? Do the dorms close over holidays?
They say you should ask: How’s the food? Can my dietary restrictions/preferences be accommodated? What sort of meal plan are freshmen required to have?
I suggest you also ask: How many dining halls/other eateries are part of the meal plan? What are their hours? Can you use your meal plan allotment elsewhere? (Every school we went to had the requirement or option of “extra money” loaded on your card that could be used in various snack-type locations, but we saw a couple of schools where you could actually use your meal money at those spots—not a bad perk if, say, your kid is only going to want to grab coffee and a muffin for breakfast most of the time.) What percentage of upperclassmen carry meal plans? Do the professors eat in the dining hall(s)? Is there a way to check card activity/add money online?
Two Final Thoughts
First: To me, there was no better question to ask anywhere we went than, “Why did you decide to come to school here?” Ask it of as many students as you can. Ask staff why they like working there, too. This is your information-gathering time, and you’re the consumer—don’t be afraid to challenge the school to sell itself to you. You may be surprised (and delighted) at some of the answers you receive, too.
Second: As a parent, you’re going to have a lot of questions, but this is a great time to restrain yourself and let your kid take the lead. Don’t be front and center with your hand waving in the air unless you’re hoping your darling offspring will stab you in your sleep that night at the hotel. Bear in mind that this is not your adventure. If you do this right, you will learn as much about your nearly-adult child as the schools, on these tours. Enjoy it.