Monday, April 22, 2013

What I Learned from Visiting Colleges

The only college I visited before I went away to school was Bentley College. I was a freshman in high school, and a family friend invited me to help him move into his dorm. After hauling up all his gear, we pointed his Bose 901 speakers out the window that overlooked the campus, dropped in a cassette tape of ZZ Top’s album El Loco, and blasted “Pearl Necklace.” Somebody pushed a beer into my hand, and that’s the last thing I remembered about college until I showed up on the campus of the University of Maine three years later.

I wanted a different experience for my sons.

So in Seamus’s junior year we spent our spring vacation visiting schools. We visited Tufts and Northeastern and Berklee in Boston, Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzard’s Bay, and Providence College and the University of Rhode Island. We laced our school visits with plenty of other fun activities, like a Red Sox game at Fenway, shopping along Washington Street in Boston, eating out in the North End, and making the Cliff Walk in Newport on a stunning blue-sunny day.

Along the way, we learned something about our sons, and a lot about colleges and universities and their admissions processes. After touring the URI and listening to an explanation of their pharmacy program, Seamus turned to us and said, “I can’t see myself in this school.” That reaction alone made the trip worth the expense. To be able to understand what you want--and don’t want--from a school is a crucial first step choosing a college.

Last summer, after picking up Brendan from music camp, we decided to take advantage of east-central Maine location and visit my alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono, and Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. Brendan is interested in the maritime academies, and our visit earlier that year to Mass Maritime piqued his interest--especially when the young lady giving us the tour (a graduating senior) told us that she had three job offers between $90,000 and $120,000 a year waiting for her.

Visiting Orono was somewhat of an excuse for me to see the place I’d spent four years of my life. I hadn’t been back 25 years, and while there were some big changes--where was the bus that ferries students around when I was trudging around campus in -20 degree weather?--the sprawling campus looked much the same. The big revelation was visiting Maine Maritime Academy. The school lodged and fed us for free, and Brendan responded to the intimate, personal feeling of the place. More importantly, he identified a unique program the school offers: a five-year marine science/small vessel ops degree. It dovetails nicely with his interest in driving boats and studying the ocean.

As he entered his senior year, Seamus was armed with the information he needed to choose the schools he’d apply to. He understood the selection process, and he had targeted schools strong not only in the programs he wanted, but he understood the kind of school he wanted to go to. He knew where he fit. The notion of finding a school that fits the student may sound offensive to old-fashioned ears. What’s the difference? All colleges and universities have classes and books and teachers. School is what you make of it, right?

But both Chantal and I had very different experiences. Chantal came to the U.S. to go to college, and she didn’t select her school (Marywood College in Scranton, Pennsylvania); it was selected for her by her family, and she hated it. She ended up with a major she was good at, but disliked (math), and an experience she’d rather forget. For me, the University of Maine at Orono was a compromise choice. I’d been admitted to Fordham University, Ripon College, Boston College, and Orono. My choice came down to money, and I went to Maine, nurturing a growing resentment that would make my four years there choppy and bittersweet.

After our first round of college tours, and after Seamus had applied to his schools (University of Vermont, University of British Columbia, Montana State University, Northeastern University, Temple University, Tufts, and McGill), we decided to plan another round of visits for this spring break. The combination of travel and education satisfied our vacation requirements, and this time Brendan was the focus: We scheduled visits to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York, and SUNY Maritime College on Throgg’s Neck, in the Bronx. We also planned a visit to Temple University in Philadelphia for Seamus, where he’d been admitted.

For both boys, all the schools we visited shared lots of characteristics while distinguishing themselves in the details. The surface stuff--the information that can be gleaned from websites--is easy to see. But the small things, the subtle differences in programs and approaches, the feeling of each campus--those are the things that can make or break a successful college experience. From our perspective, we saw a marked contrast in the approach of each kind of school. The maritime academies focus on outcomes. They look beyond the experience to the results. The only conventional school that talked about serious, practical results was Northeastern, famous for its cooperative education program. The theme that ran through all the conventional colleges and universities we visited was lifestyle. There’s a huge emphasis on food and eating and socializing and activities. That emphasis sounds soft, and it is; but it also feeds into how a prospective student sees him or her self living at the place for the next four years.

The big takeaways from all this college research is sort of a mix. Can a student be happy in any institution? Sure, if he or she has the right kind of motivation and personality. But if a student has worked hard in high school to achieve some choice at the university level, and if, like my sons, they’ve been told that they will have to figure out how to pay for their own educations, taking some time to visit a few places not only makes sense, but it seems silly not to do.

If that isn’t convincing, think of it this way: the only other thing most of us will spend $200,000 on in our lives is a home (well, in Stowe that will only get you a fancy garage). You wouldn’t buy a house without looking at it first, would you?

Or maybe you would.