Finally doing my homework…


When I attended college, I did not do my homework.

To clarify, I did absolutely no research whatsoever on or visit any college campuses prior to applying for and attending my first day of college at Northwestern University. I looked at pictures – like the one in this post – if that counts! I know, it doesn’t.

I also didn’t apply to any other institutions. All the eggs were in this one basket. Those who know me today find this a surprising, especially given my proclivity to over analyze, over prepare and over research most of the decisions in my life. I graduated in four years, so we’ll just say that it worked out in the end. Although my college experience could have been better if I had just done my homework.

I could have made it better. This is why I now proactively and enthusiastically encourage all students whom I know to invest the time and efforts in researching all education options to find that right fit. In fact, I recently started visiting some local campus colleges with one my 16-year old cousin. Two years is not that far away and I want her to see what is out there for her. And I must say, because I never did it myself, I have found myself reveling in these campus tours, learning a lot about today’s college life, and seemingly asking more questions than anyone else in the groups.

At the end of these two years, she will make a choice that hopefully is the college or university that best suits her capabilities, her interests, and her ambitions. As I continue these tours, I plan to share some of the most important questions, answers and information I hear from other parents, visitors, and students. Here’s what I have so far.

First and foremost, facilities play an important role.  Impressive science buildings, business school buildings, fitness and recreation centers – buildings across the board – all make a tremendous difference. Potential students and their families appreciate the tangible assets of the campus and also focus on how the campus comes together. On-campus housing for residential campuses also matter.  From crowding issues in residence halls, to asking about the bathrooms, AC and heat controls, closet space, laundry facilities, meal plans, common areas and security – the overall living environment for students both who plan to live on and off campus is without question a very important concern – and I say off campus too, because even they seem to want to know about the sense of community created on this campus how they will fit into that.

In fact, I was struck on how many of these kinds of questions dominated tour conversations. And actually, health and fitness clubs overwhelmingly received more attention on these tours than the library access and resources. Not surprising.

This experience is really causing me to reflect. A few years back, I worked in higher level marketing roles for two very different education institutions. In developing the communications and messaging for these institutions, I had always focused my deliverables quite heavily on academic quality, offerings, learning resources, and faculty – because I thought these were the most important things at an institution. I still do, but the point I’m trying to make is not that these areas are unimportant to students or parents today; Most, I think, assume quality is a given in these areas, so it would be beneficial to all visitors if institutions focused on ways to convey the value add and their uniqueness in such areas.

So what else…a lot about campus safety and surrounding neighborhoods – and rightly so. The role of a public safety force and the presence of security phones seem to be important ingredients in creating that feeling of safety and comfort for both students and parents.

What I am happy to see gaining more attention is a focus on learning outside the classroom. Field-based and experiential learning along with post-graduate market opportunities are receiving a lot of attention everywhere and both parents and potential students seem very focused on both these real world opportunities and outcomes.

What about rankings! I have been to three Illinois and Michigan-based campuses so far these last two months. And on all three campus tours, I heard the perfectly-trained guides tout what seemed to sound like very similar stats and rankings. They weren’t, but the point is that with such information overload during these visits, it’s difficult to discern the actual relevance of many of these rankings. What I have found is that while rankings might be relevant and pertinent in some areas, the statistics parents and students want to hear about are faculty-student ratios, faculty credentials, and types/amounts of majors offered.

On a final note for this installment of visits…faculty! That’s the heart of the campus. To tour during summer or weekends, as we have been doing, can be disappointing, because there are not as many faculty members present during these times. If you can, try for a weekday. Then you have the opportunity to see faculty conduct classes, interact with students, talk to one another, and listen to some conversations. And what better opportunity is there to gain a truer sense of the institution’s overall culture than by hearing from those who live it every day.

We have yet to find a fit, so the homework must go on…