Cognitive Dissonance and the Campus Visit

All of my families hear me say this in the beginning of their college search:  “I go on a lot of tours.”

And it’s true.  I do.  Though I haven’t seen nearly as many campuses as many of my counterparts in the IECA, I travel to many each year to find out what makes them a great fit for a particular student.  Already in 2013, I have the months of April, June, October, and November fully booked with tours and I’m still looking for some others to fill the other months.  (For an educational consultant, tours are our mainstay.  We can’t help students if we don’t know what’s going on out there!)

Most of the families I work with, on the other hand, don’t go on a lot of tours.  Over the course of the average high school junior and senior’s college searches, most families will see somewhere between eight and fifteen schools.  (Only in one extreme case did I encounter a family who had been to 40 campuses in order to find the right one – which, of course, turned out to be lucky number 41.)  But when I say that families will “see” a number of campuses, I don’t necessarily mean that they will experience what those campuses are like.  Sure, they’ll step inside buildings and maybe even meet with faculty and a coach or two, as well as chatting with some current students along the way – but what I’ve seen more and more lately on my campus visits (and remember – that’s a lot!) is that many families visit campuses, ask questions, and come away having learned absolutely nothing new or helpful about the institution.

By all means, ask LOTS of questions during your campus visit!
By all means, ask LOTS of questions during your campus visit!

How is that possible?

I chalk it up to a little bit of unconscious self-sabotage on the part of both students and parents.  Here’s how it happens:

Students and parents begin researching colleges, both online and through talking with counselors at school, friends, and/or family members.  Some families may even hire an educational consultant like myself.  Mail begins to roll in from the schools that have piqued the student’s interest and invitations to visit campus appear.  Students and parents schedule some visits and begin to do pre-visit research, which is usually conducted online.  They’ll consult the college or university’s own web site, as well as perhaps visiting sites like Cappex or College Prowler where they can read reviews from current students, and perhaps they’ll also talk with friends who have connections to the school – the parent of a currently enrolled student or the neighbor who’s daughter visited the school last year.

All of these activities are great and I encourage them as families prepare to make their trips.  But if students and parents aren’t very careful, they run the risk of forming such a complete picture of a particular school in their minds before their arrival that when they actually tour the campus and sit in on the information session(s), their minds won’t allow for vital new information to enter into their field of vision.  That is, they’ll form the idea that they already know the school inside and out and won’t allow anything contradictory to enter.

(Not to venture too far into the realm of psychology, but it basically comes down to cognitive dissonance, the idea that when we come up against two conflicting ideas, human nature is such that we automatically take steps to resolve the conflict in our mind – normally in whatever way that will cause the least disturbance to our existing beliefs.)

Sometimes the discrepancy between what families expect to find at a particular school and what actually exists is minor – for example, the reality of a campus is that the buildings are rather spread out as opposed to being close and within easy walking distance.  This is the sort of difference that usually doesn’t faze the student or parent; it’s a tiny bit of dissonance that is quickly resolved.  But more often than not, the gaps between what families believe to be true about a school and what is actually true are far wider than the majority of them anticipate – and all too often, I’ve seen them resolve the dissonance by simply ignoring new (true) information.

For example, let’s look at a student who hopes to follow a pre-veterinary track in college.  It’s common for animal lovers (especially riders) and can be a great career for the right student to embark on.  But like many other careers, it isn’t for everyone – which is why pre-veterinary (and veterinary) programs are all designed to weed out the students who may have talents and interests that lie elsewhere.  (Pre-medical, pre-dental, and pre-law programs are much the same.)  Yet I cannot begin to count the number of students and parents that I have encountered during my campus travels who have discounted the rigor of a school’s science programs simply because the information presented didn’t gel with the picture they had already formed in their heads.

For equestrian students, I’ve seen the discussion between the families and the college representatives go as follows:

Student or Parent:  “Will I/he/she be able to bring a horse to campus as a freshman?”

College representative:  “Students on the pre-veterinary track have required lab and practical hours and must fulfill a substantial amount of science requirements in their first two years.  Because of this, we really discourage them from bringing a horse – at least in the first semester.  The majority won’t have time to ride more than twice a week during their four years here if they’re going to be successful applicants to vet school.”

Student or Parent:  “So what you’re saying is that it’s probably better if the horse lives off-campus?”

The college search is a giant puzzle - and you'll need all the pieces to finish it.
The college search is a giant puzzle – and you’ll need all the pieces to finish it.

By no means am I trying to belittle any parents or students in this blog entry, nor am I calling anyone on the carpet for the questions they choose to ask when they visit schools.  (Always ask questions – that’s why you’re there!)  Visiting schools is a great thing and it’s essential to college selection.  But I want to caution families that if they’re going to undertake the time and expense of visiting campuses, they must come away with valuable NEW information about the school that is pertinent to the student’s future goals!  Sometimes that information may contradict a student’s carefully thought out plans – perhaps he/she learns that a pre-veterinary track just won’t fit in with everything else he or she wants to do in college, or else the school’s equestrian team is phenomenal but the science program just doesn’t offer the right level of academic rigor that he or she was looking for – but with the cost of a college education continuing to skyrocket, it’s far better to obtain that information in the search stage rather than four years and $100,000 or more in debt down the road.

Thus, if you’re a student or parent just starting out on the college search, my advice to you is this:  Treat the college search like a big puzzle that you’re putting together; in this case, the only pieces you start with are the corners.  As you visit campuses and obtain new, verifiable information along the way, the sides and middle will begin to fill in until the picture is complete.  In order for the final image to be everything you want it to be, however, you have to have an open mind about the pieces you pick up along the way – because even though they might not seem to fit or appear to be the wrong shape, they might turn out in the end to be the elusive last piece you were looking for all along.

(And if you need the help of an expert puzzler, contact me.)

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