A campus may appear to have it all. The best professors in a particular major. An active campus life. Beautifully designed dorms. Championship sports.
That is when you see a college on paper or online. But visit a campus, and an entirely different picture might emerge. Sometimes, what you and your student research about a campus may not be exactly what greets you once you land on campus for a visit.
In our Facebook group “Paying For College 101,” many parents have discussed “red flags,” or warning signs, to watch for when researching colleges and definitely make sure to know before your student calls a campus home.
Why visit? Taking a college campus tour of any school your student is interested in can be critical. While a tour seems like it would be a lovely experience, that is sometimes far from the case.
What Should I Expect on a Tour of a Campus?
You need to see the place with your eyes, get a feel for the place, and ask questions. It can be as simple as visiting a rural campus and deciding your child needs more city than country, or a more complicated situation like crime on campus.
Ask Questions from Those “In-the-Know”
You should get a comprehensive tour of the campus. Some colleges have student tour guides that may be inadequately trained to highlight the best a campus has to offer. Make sure you have a guide who knows the campus and covers all ground.
For example, your student may be very interested in astronomy, creative writing, or engineering. But the tour guide may focus on athletics and show sports facilities instead of classrooms. Many parents say that you can tell what a school values based on where guides take you on a tour.
Colleges often host fairs for specific majors. Major fairs should always have faculty in attendance who can answer questions about courses, extracurricular groups connected to areas of study, and internship and career opportunities.
Review the On-Campus Meal Plan
When you visit a campus, eat cafeteria meals like the ones your student will eat—not a special event, such as an open house, when the food is likely catered. Make sure the meal plan meets you and your student’s expectations. If the food is inedible, you could end up spending a lot of money on fast food for your student.
“Try the cafeteria food,” said parent Debbie D. “not Starbucks or Einstein’s or Chick-fil-A, but the school food your child will eat day after day after day. Pay attention to the hours of operation. Are the good places open on the weekends? My daughter’s school eateries weren’t. There were limited options on weekends, so for those staying, there wasn’t much to choose from, and she ended up going off campus.”
“If athletes will be there over winter break, ask what food options are available, if any,” she continued. “Nobody mentioned the school cafeteria closed for three weeks while winter sports athletes were required to be on campus. Apparently, this is supposed to be coordinated with athletics. So, my daughter had over three of eating bagged breakfast, frozen pizza, or make your own tacos. Also, ask how the regular hours of operation coincide with practices and games. If the program isn’t feeding you, will there be anything open late?”
Parent Elizabeth S. shared that food may simply need a little spicing up. “Our take away is our kiddo will need a way to bring spices in to the dining hall.”
Examine the Culture and Environment
Want to get real insight into campus life? Read the college newspaper. Why? Because most college newspapers are uncensored by faculty and administrators. The newspaper can expose various issues on the campus, including crime and students’ concerns.
For example, one parent in our Facebook group asked college administrators about alcohol problems on campus. The administrators and tour guides played down any problems. But she discovered that the student newspaper discussed the issue fairly and openly.
“Parents and students alike can learn so much from what is and what is not included in the student newspaper and/or other student publications,” Craig Meister, a college admissions consultant, says.” If none are available when on campus, try to find them online before or after your visit.”
Check out Potential Dorm Problems
If your student plans to live in a dorm, make sure you check it out thoroughly. While many campuses have spent millions of dollars to modernize their dorms, others have not. Some still look as if they are from the 1960s or 70s.
While that might seem quaint and even cool, it also can be deadly.
Many college dorms have mold problems, and often colleges do not want to be forthright about the problem. Ask for a tour, talk to students who live in the dorm, and research to see if any newspaper articles have been written about that particular campus.
Mold can cause serious illnesses, and even death, so make sure your student is safe.
Check to make sure the air conditioning and heating works sufficiently in dorms. Some colleges charge thousands of dollars for room and board but have yet to remodel them with modern luxuries.
Debbie D. encouraged parents to check out everything in the dorms, including “the furniture, the bathrooms, the lighting, and whether there is A/C or not.” After not being able to visit dorms due to COVID, she was surprised to find the dorms were like “going back in time, especially after seeing friends’ beautiful new dorms.”
Assess the Infrastructure and Outdoor Space
Many parents advise walking all over the campus with a tour guide. Yes, this may sound exhausting, but look to see how the grounds are kept and if trash cans are overflowing. Is the college really proud of its campus? Are you seeing in real life what you saw online or in a brochure?
You also may assume—wrongly—that all campuses are wired with high-speed internet. That might not be the case, especially if your student plans on attending a rural college, one near mountains, or in an area of the state where internet connection is lacking.
What Else Should I Know About a College Campus?
Meister says parents can’t know enough about the college their student will attend. He also says you must ask about building security. Can anyone enter? How safe are the dorms? Are security procedures in place but not enforced? Who is responsible for security on campus—school police force, a city/town police force, a combination of both and/or a private security company?
Another critical stop on any tour, Meister says, is a visit to the career services department. You’re sending your student to school to earn a degree and get a job. Ask if graduates have jobs six months or a year after graduating. Find out how those jobs are broking by major or industry.
Just as important are academic support services like tutoring.
“Parents should try to determine how accessible all these support services are on the campuses they visit,” Meister says.
Parents should also think about their students’ health.
“While no parent wants their children to have physical or mental health challenges while in college, it’s wise for parents to learn as much as possible while on campus about a college’s health services program(s),” Meister says. “Ask to see facilities or speak with those who administer the program in order to determine how accessible it will be for your student.”
Don’t forget to take plenty of notes and photos on each campus visit.
If you don’t get what you expect on a tour, talk to the college admissions office. If they don’t seem willing to assist, that college may not be the best fit for your student.
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