Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Lazy Rivers and Learning Commons: Observations on What Really Matters during the Initial College Visit

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Lazy Rivers and Learning Commons: Observations on What Really Matters during the Initial College Visit

Article excerpt

Thoughtful planning and well-trained tour guides generally trump built amenities.

AS COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES COMPETE for a dwindling number of high school graduates--projected to drop two percent overall and more than five percent in 15 states and the District of Columbia by 2023-24 (Husser and Bailey 2016)--the ability to attract those students becomes more critical. For many institutions, the drive for "attractiveness" has taken the form of built amenities, ranging from dorms that resemble luxury hotels to fitness centers that feature lazy rivers and whirlpools for 25 students. Other institutions, perhaps with fewer financial resources, tout professors with books published in the popular press or connections to executives in business or government. Others promote the quality of their food, the uniqueness of their campus setting (whether urban or rural or somewhere in between), the accomplishments of their graduates, and their place in numerous national rankings.

But how much does any of this really matter when it comes to the initial campus visit and the first impressions that 16-to-18-year-olds and their parents form about a particular institution? Perhaps less than most college and university administrators believe--or hope.

Between June 2014 and March 2016, my college-bound son, my husband, and I visited 14 higher education institutions, ranging from private liberal arts colleges with fewer than 1,500 students to multi-campus state flagship universities, from schools located in the middle of a major metropolitan area where the boundaries between campus and city blurred to those separated from their small town by a valley and a fence, from highly selective institutions to those profiled in Colleges That Change Lives (Pope 2012). These institutions had two things in common: they were, with one exception, all located in the mid-Atlantic region and they all had programs in political science or international relations/affairs.

As we made our way from institution to institution, we formed first impressions that in most cases proved hard to shake. These are our observations, along with suggestions for administrators designed to improve the initial visit experience:


Long before we set foot on any institution's physical campus, we experienced its virtual counterpart in the process of scheduling our visit. Not surprisingly, those institutions that made the process simple--by having an easy-to-navigate web site, requiring us to provide only limited information, and offering clear and convenient options based on our interests-created a positive first impression. Some institutions made the process more difficult, and in one case we nearly decided to forego our visit altogether. In that instance, the institution's website allowed us to schedule only during the current month; when I called to inquire when the following month's schedule would be available, I was told to check back on a particular day. On that day, the schedule was still not available, and in a subsequent call I was told to check again the following week. That process played out twice more before we were able to schedule our visit, and our first impression--rightly or wrongly--was of a school that was disorganized, understaffed, and indifferent.

Conversely, those institutions that sent helpful e-mail follow-up messages, with maps and directions, instructions for parking, links to area hotels and restaurants, tips to make our visit successful, and clear contact information in the case of questions or concerns, built on our initial impressions to foster their image as caring, student-focused, and professional.

Suggestion: Ask an outsider (preferably a college-bound teen and his/her parent) to schedule an initial student visit at your institution. Did they find the process straightforward or complicated? What questions did they have along the way, and what resources were clearly available to answer them? …

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