The Great College Road Trip
Summers, Nick, Newsweek
Byline: Nick Summers
Mom, Dad, and an anxious 17-year-old embark on a 1,500-mile quest for the perfect college-half-naked coeds included.
"I know I'm obsessing about this," Frank Holland says, speeding down a New Hampshire highway at dusk toward Maine, trip odometer approaching 700, two campuses down and four more to go on his kid's college tour. "But didn't the guide have a cell phone? Call them! 'Girls, we're on our way, maybe put some clothes on?' "
"The least they could have done is clear off their shot glasses," says Dylan, his 17-year-old son. The high-school junior had just been napping next to me, head on his balled-up peacoat, in the back seat of the family's gray Toyota Camry. Behind us, St. Michael's College and two less-than-dressed, less-than-concerned-about-it coeds whose room we had sheepishly entered on an official tour gone awry are receding into the New England countryside at 75 miles an hour. In the front seat are mom Lissa Holland, 52, dutifully paging through The Insider's Guide to the Colleges or another of the 1,100-page door-stoppers she has brought along, and dad Frank, 52, obeying a GPS as he tries to cover as many miles as possible between us and Maine's Colby College before nightfall.
Three days have passed since the Hollands left their Lancaster, Pa., home, one family among thousands embarking on the great seasonal migration that is the college road trip. The difference is they've agreed to let Newsweek along for the ride--and their trek is more epic than most. By the time they are done, the Hollands will have covered 1,529 miles, more than half the width of the continental United States. "All," Lissa says wearily, as we trudge into a chain hotel one night after not having eaten for 10 hours, "in the service of college."
But obviously, anything normal about the college admissions process went out the window a long time ago. An army of 1.5 million students entered college last fall, according to the Higher Education Research Institute, and on the frenzied coasts 47 percent of them applied to six or more schools--roughly double the rate three years earlier. That means a proportionate rise in campus visits, which admission experts say have grown in importance for applicants trying to make schools take them seriously. Collegia, a consultancy that helps cities market their colleges, estimates that as many as 250,000 families pass through Boston each year to see the likes of Harvard, Tufts, and Boston University. At the University of North Carolina, officials have seen visits jump 24 percent this year-thanks in part to a new program offering tours to students as young as elementary-school age. And of course, as application totals shoot up, acceptance rates plummet, which only spurs high schoolers to apply even more prolifically. The feedback loop has driven the scale, and stakes, of the humble college road trip to monster proportions.
Even so, some things about this ritual will never change. No matter the miles, it remains the same sweet, awkward, love-your-kid-but-kind-of-want-to-kill-her trip it has always been. The Hollands turn out to be sane and pleasant people, well equipped to weather the riot of emotions that attend preparing a kid for college. Parents must reckon with the sadness of a child leaving home versus the joy of getting him out of your hair. The thrill of setting her adult life in motion versus the horror of paying for it. Add in parental nostalgia and teen irritability, multiply by mile after mile of bumpy road, and the Volvos and Priuses pulling into admissions-office parking lots all season long are overcarbonated little cans of drama indeed.
We met in the lobby of the Hollands' hotel in Middlebury, Vt., home of the eponymous school, on a beautiful and frigid Tuesday morning. The biggest March blizzard in the state's history had just dumped two feet of snow on the small town, stranding the Hollands here for 24 hours, and cabin fever has made Lissa even bubblier than usual. …