This past weekend I took my daughter Jane, a high school junior, on the first of what will surely be many campus tours. She is my fifth and last child to go to college, if you include the ex-stepkids, and I realized early Saturday morning that I know something about this process that I didn’t the first several times through.
We started at Swarthmore, with its verdant 425-acre campus including an arboretum and amphitheater, its 1550 undergraduates, its 8:1 student to faculty ratio, its $63,000 price tag, its $47,000 average aid package, its reputation as the school where “students love to learn” and where “fun comes to die,” its 6% black students and 17% Asian students, its pass-fail first semester.
Our engaging, articulate tour guide ended our hour-and-a-half long peregrinations around the park-like campus with a story, which she told us on the circular patio of Clothier Hall, a building that looks like a gothic church but is really a snack bar and music performance center.
It was the spring of her senior year, she told us, and she had been accepted to several of the colleges where she had applied. To decide, she planned to make an overnight visit to each.
At Swarthmore, the young woman who was assigned to host her was simply horrible. She took her to no classes or extracurricular meetings, basically abandoned her all day, and even at dinner informed her she had other plans. Our girl was panicked, so upset and confused that her heart was pounding. She went out from the dining hall onto the green, strewn with white Adirondack chairs (and one giant Adirondack chair: public art, I explained to Jane.) It was twilight. She sat in the chair, and she put down her backpack. After a few moments, she began to relax. She began people-watching. And breathing. A feeling came over her — a comfortable feeling, a sense of rightness, of being at home. Perverse, considering the day she’d been through.
She walked over to the Clothier Hall terrace — right where she had us standing now — and looked up at the domed roof, then out between the columns to the violet evening sky. She knew right then where she would go to college.
Ha, I thought, of course you did. She had just described a version of how almost all college decisions get made, and why college visits are so important. The decision is almost always largely based on some kind of chemical reaction between the kid and the campus that no fact sheets, statistics, curricular options, or even boorish hosts can touch.
It’s like this. You get to the college, carrying your email from admissions, all signed up for your info session and tour. Maybe you’ve even arranged to take a class or to meet with a prof in your child’s area of interest. You’re armed with pamphlets and lists, with questions about study abroad and career counseling.
Or maybe you do none of this. Maybe you’re like my ex-husband Crispin, who took our daughter Emma to visit liberal arts colleges in the Midwest: Oberlin, Antioch, Denison, Kenyon. He sent no emails and studied no websites. They just pulled up into the visitors’ parking lots and wandered around each place for an hour or two.
Whether you are prepared or unprepared, what happens on these visits is the same. After a little while, your kid says, “The people seem kind of weird.” Or “This is cool.” Or “I could see myself here.” Or “Let’s get out of this hellhole.” And that is it.
Eventually Emma applied to ten colleges. She got some surprise rejections, including Oberlin and UT, and some nice acceptances, including Brown and NYU. I had tried hard to sell her on Brown, my alma mater, but it seemed terminally preppy to her. NYU was where she was going all along. After all those Midwestern campuses, the replacement of emerald quads with dirty sidewalks, with no campus at all, turned out to be exactly what she was looking for. When the info session began with “Most of you won’t like it here,” she was as good as matriculated.
The gut-feeling phenomenon operated dramatically in the case of my son Hayes, who was originally determined to go to the U.S. Naval Academy, which I tried to respect as an act of rebellion if nothing else. He went to a football game there with my mother and my uncle, an alumnus from the 40s, and that was fun. Then he went on the overnight visit.
Two hours into it, playing video games with his plebe host on his glacially smooth, military-cornered iron bed, he thought he might want to keep looking.
Once the Naval Academy was out of the picture, he went on a road trip with his high school friend Mike and Mike’s grandpa, a debonair 72-year-old with a big Cadillac and a passing resemblance to Dean Martin. They visited 12 colleges up and down the East Coast, and every night they ate in a steakhouse. Mike had a feeling about Wake Forest, which is where he got his degree four years later. Hayes had no feelings, really, until the twelfth and last college they visited: Georgetown.
Hayes fell in love with Georgetown the way you fall in love with a person, and when he was eventually wait-listed, and then put on a second waiting list, then rejected, he spent his freshman year at GWU across the street. He got in as a sophomore transfer, and at last he was home.
Vince had a slightly more logical version of the lightning strike. We had ruled out colleges with snow, and required a non-performance-oriented music major. So with an alluring list of campuses located in Florida, Nashville, New Orleans and Southern California, we started tooling around.
Stetson’s “music technology program” appeared to be a couple of rooms full of instruments and electronic parts in a basement, but the University of Miami could have been a resort, towering palm trees, red tile roofs, a dining hall with outdoor umbrella tables and ice-cold beer. I never wanted to leave. But no matter how much I liked it, Vince was unmoved.
The next leg of our journey took us to New Orleans, the town where I met Vince’s dad at Mardi Gras in 1983. From the second we stepped out of the rental car, it was clear that something important was happening. Would it be Tulane, maybe? They had a computer music major and some beautiful Spanish oaks. Vince wasn’t convinced.
After lunch, we went next door to Loyola. Within minutes we found ourselves in a conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Garden District, just the two of us and a Grammy-winning producer named John Snyder, the head of the department. He spent an hour talking to Vince about his music career (that is, Vince’s music career), advising him to read Malcolm Gladwell on the “long tail” theory of niche marketing.
That, and a pile of crawfish, and an $18,000 merit scholarship, was the end of that decision-making process. Gut feelings are best when combined with numbers that work out.
Finally, there was Sam. Sam was interested in going to a school that had a pot dispensary on campus and was surrounded by magnificent mountains with snowboarding runs. Clearly, the University of Colorado was calling him. The University of Vermont really didn’t have much of a chance. He graduated a couple years ago, but he is still in Boulder, working for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research to see how plant cover in the alpine and subalpine tundra will change given the projected climate of the year 2100. Or, as he puts it, hiking around and looking at plants. Thank you, Sam.
So back to our day in western Philly. After Swarthmore, we went to Haverford, a Quaker college of similar size and verdancy, but with a more modest self-image and vibe, very much like Jane’s Quaker high school, Baltimore Friends, down to the color scheme and the beloved honor code. The day Jane saw Friends for the first time, it was almost as if a flock of Disney bluebirds were carrying her around the campus. Everything was right. It was heaven.
The bluebirds didn’t come for Jane at Haverford, though. After we finished our tour, led by a quiet, sweet Chinese tennis player, we sat in the coffee house afterwards and tried to process our reactions. We were with friends from Brooklyn, veterans of the New York City public school system, which involves difficult choices and application processes from kindergarten on. Kate Ryan, touring with her son Amyas, had been so thorough and organized in her evaluation of the NYC options that she had become an unofficial counselor to other parents, including my best friend Sandye, now with us in Pennsylvania with her daughter Ava. Kate planned a similar rational and exhaustive attack on the college decision. Already, though, the gut was taking over. Something was wrong with Swarthmore, and something was right about Haverford. For us, it was the opposite. And really, it made no sense at all.
We will continue touring. We will consider the size of each school, and the location, and the diversity percentages and the majors. We will look at the dorms, and check the online ratings of the food and the professors. We will send the kids on overnights and talk to alumni. In the end, the decision will be made independent of facts, or even contrary to them, finances and aid packages permitting.
A mysterious sense of rightness will descend on the child. It will be sparked by a flyer on a bulletin board, or a group of kids hanging on the lawn, or a bell tower, or a daily special in the coffee bar. It may sound crazy, but it’s how it works. You just have to get in the car, and prepare to be surprised.
University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for a monthly email with links to new installments of this column, other essays and book reviews.