Feature It: Reframing the "Lost" College Visit

Feature It: Reframing the "Lost" College Visit

Kate Peltz
Director of College Counseling
Concord Academy

In a rusty, light grey station wagon, my father and I traversed New York and Pennsylvania. The year was 1995. The month was April. Our objective was to use school vacation week to help me build a college list. Certainly, my family’s thinking about college tours was informed by the environment in which I grew up: an affluent, white, suburb with college decals on SUV windows.

As we find ourselves in pandemic spring 2.0, college visiting is not possible for the majority of juniors just beginning their college journeys and seniors finalizing enrollment plans. When my mother was alive she would say, “If you can’t fix it, feature it.” Her sound advice reminds me to invert the problem of cancelled college tours. Instead of wringing hands over the lost college road trip, we can emphasize the opportunity facing institutions and students. Covid is inviting us to reinvent college discovery and student engagement.

The majority of college-goers don’t have the resources for multi-day visiting trips. Hotel and restaurant costs are prohibitive, and taking time off from work threatens job security for parents. Indeed, college tours are a privileged habit. Yes, college access organizations and school-specific fly-in programs for underrepresented populations have attempted to diversify visitors. Still, we know students with insider knowledge about campuses before starting college are predominately white, wealthy, and already ahead in the college game.

Covid’s grip has necessitated that schools work harder to reach their network of prospective students and get creative about how to welcome and engage “visitors” from a distance. Everyone wins when advanced understanding of institutions is available to all students, not just a chosen few. I know from my experience as a college counselor that higher education happiness is not predicated on exploring dorms and dining halls. My own college story also reveals this truth.

Admittedly, I am a sample size of one, but I wince looking back on my 1995 research methods. My family owned a copy of the Fiske Guide, which I read with genuine intrigue, and I happily perused glossy college brochures. The Internet was not yet booming, but I scrolled through college websites, hoping to understand unique offerings and approaches. I was a reluctant college enthusiast, unsure of why or even if I wanted to attend, and still coming into my own as a student. Course catalogs did not excite me, they intimidated me.

Touring colleges let me off the hook from wrestling with my ambivalence. Instead of focusing on myself as a learner, I homed in on campus architecture and picturesque quads and believed what tour guides promised. This is not to suggest I was misled; rather, I never stopped to deeply question how college representatives were marketing to me, and whether I valued what they were promoting. Campus tours helped me figure out what I would “get” from particular institutions, but not how I would contribute, nor how I would make my education my own.

Here's where we counselors come in. We can’t “fix” the pandemic’s disruption to travel routines. But we can empower students by asking them to “feature” deep personal reflection and comprehensive research strategies in our counseling models. When we observe students arriving at shallow conclusions about prestige or perceived fit, we can urge them toward greater introspection, asking questions such as: How might a particular college help you develop into your future self? What opportunities do you intend to take advantage of that are endemic to a particular school? How are you calculating the cost versus value of attending? In what ways will your chosen school stretch you? What resources will you utilize when you struggle? Educators need to help students see themselves as active participants in, rather than passive absorbers of, education.

Someday we will return to our pre-pandemic routines. Music streaming through open dormitory windows may once again be siren songs for future-looking high schoolers. But when it comes to college exploration, my hope is not to return to former ways of doing business. Institutions must continue to grapple with how to grant access to all prospective students, not just the rarified few. And everyone, not just educators, must remember the disruption Covid has caused. We have realized exactly how precious learning is. Education’s magic is not found through visiting, applying, or getting in, but when one is able to attend.

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Comments on "Feature It: Reframing the "Lost" College Visit"

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Kristin Cocquyt - Friday, April 09, 2021

Kate, thank you for taking the time to write this article. Your reflections resonate with me personally and with my college counseling philosophy. I recognize the loss of the traditional visit experience for many families, but I am also hopeful that college choices made during the month of April will be more influenced by real research, self-reflection, and maybe most importantly cost/value analysis - - rather than being "wowed" by appearances during an accepted student visit. Godspeed to all our families as they navigate the search, application and decision process within this brave new college admission world!

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