The "Million-Dollar Walk": Planning an Effective College Visit

It’s probably the biggest deciding factor in a student’s choice of where to go to college: the campus visit. And colleges know it too.

Most students and their parents don’t believe they are being marketed to while strolling through well-manicured lawns past smiling students and ivy-covered buildings, but there is a very calculated plan behind the campus tour.

College administrators know students are often very emotionally invested in the school before they even schedule a visit.  They are eager to reel in more tuition dollars for their institution and have optimized the campus tour for this purpose.

Jeff Selingo in his book College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students says:

Admissions officers have long called the tour the "golden mile" or the "million-dollar walk" because few things matter as much in where a student eventually ends up as the campus visit. As a result, schools have increasingly tried to sell an experience on the tour rather than simply convey information…

College salesman know the truth: students rely on emotions and "gut-instinct" to choose a college rather than the facts.  And what are the results?  Only 43% of students graduate in the college where they start.  Most students end up transferring or dropping out, but only after paying a semester or two of tuition to their first-choice college.  Clearly this isn't a method that is working out too well.

Making the Most of the College Visit

A well-planned campus visit can still be a valuable tool to make a decision, as it allows students and parents to get answers to questions that can't be found by looking at a website.  Before they get to campus, they can (and should) find out basic information like tuition prices, available majors, student to faculty ratio, and graduation rates.

Some questions they’ll want to ask a tour guide, or someone else on campus, include: how available are professors to meet with students, how many students have find employment within a year after graduating, what is the living situation like, or what kind of support system is available for students who are struggling or who have special needs?

These tough questions deserve answers, and the more willing students and parents are to challenge universities, the more likely educational institutions will begin to change to meet the current needs of students.

From the same book, Selingo has this advice:

On campus tours, colleges emphasize the bells and whistles: the fancy dorms, climbing walls, and technology-filled classrooms. Don't let them distract you. Smart students should focus their attention on the quality of teaching, the portability of their credits, and the value a degree or other credential will provide them in the job market.

Visiting campus also provides students with the opportunity to attend a lecture, meet with an administrator or faculty member one-on-one, speak to students and maybe visit the dining hall for a meal.  Another great idea is to wander the campus without a guide and stop and ask students or employees for directions if you get lost.  All these activities will give you a more real experience of the college, and valuable insight you can then weigh with the facts to make a more informed decision.

Start the easy way by building a list of good college matches with your student.