Longtime readers of this blog will recall that I’ve written rather extensively about basic considerations that all students and parents should bear in mind when planning and going on campus visits. I’ve also made no secret of the fact that I love a good campus visit (and, as an educational consultant, I’m in the right job because part of what I do includes visiting upwards of 20 college and university campuses each year)!
But in poring over those previous blog entries and planning for my own upcoming tours this spring and summer (watch this space for recaps and photos), I realized that the one item I’ve never previously touched on is one of the most important parts of any campus tour. Have I mentioned it in passing? Absolutely. Have I stressed that it’s an important component of the visit? You bet! But I haven’t taken the time to break this particular piece out into it’s own blog entry and, with everything you’re undoubtedly hearing and reading about higher education in the media at the moment, I think it’s a topic whose time has clearly come.
Readers, today I’d like to stress the importance of visiting the area surrounding the campus as a part of your college tour agenda.
Well, duh, Randi, I hear you say. Why wouldn’t I do that? What do you think I am, an idiot?
On the contrary, my friends; I know that you understand full well the importance of making sure that your dream school is located in the exact picturesque location that will make your friends and family jealous, that there isn’t a noticeably high murder rate (!), and that the area is accessible by car as opposed to Sherpa guide and oxcart. But the point that I want to stress is that you need to go beyond campus location and local amenities. Look past your checklist items. (Two Starbucks? Check. All-night pizza delivery options? Check.) Dig deep and investigate what the surrounding community will mean for your life.
More specifically, consider:
- How you get there. Does reaching the school require you to travel to your home airport, fly across the country, then rent a car or take public transportation in order to simply take the campus tour? Is it a short or a long drive? If so, think about how comfortable you and your parents are with you making this journey multiple times over the course of the next four to six years (Christmas, spring break, summer break, etc.). Think about the cost of this travel, the cost to ship or store large quantities of your possessions (clothes, furniture for a dorm room or off-campus apartment, even your car). And if the campus is a drive-able distance from your home, how easy will it be to make the drive during the winter if there are weather warnings? After all, a college can’t educate you if you can’t get to it.
- The basic amenities you require and how to find them in the local area. I joked about this above, but I’m not talking about locating the nearest Starbucks or your favorite restaurant chain; instead I’m talking about meeting your very base needs here. Do you get regular haircuts every six weeks? Do you see an allergist, chiropractor, or other medical/dental/other specialist? If so, find out if these services are available to you locally and if they’re covered by your parents’ insurance, as well as how you will get to these appointments. (Is there a campus taxi or shuttle service? Is the charge included in your student fees or is it separate?) And if there are other services you consider to be a basic need (mani/pedis, a great local tack shop, a Taco Bell for your late night cravings, etc.), take the time to investigate those too.
- Evaluate your initial impressions of the surrounding area and then compare them to your current lifestyle. It’s all well and good to fall in love with the quaint rural college that features postcard views from every building, has your exact academic program, and owns a world class equestrian facility where you can ride every day, but if you’re the kind of student who comes from a large city where you’re used to having every service and entertainment option available at your fingertips, you might discover that slow-paced small town life really isn’t for you and that a Saturday night trip to the local Dollar Store isn’t your idea of adventure. Conversely, you might initially be excited by a school situated in a larger city where you take public transportation to class every day and then decide after a semester that you’d prefer to be somewhere that you could just roll out of bed and walk to class. Making the change between your current lifestyle and your college lifestyle is going to be a major transition no matter where you enroll, but you can ease your way in if marry your expectations to what your chosen dream school is actually able to offer.
- Spend some time in businesses located near campus to learn about the relationship between the school and its community. You can learn a lot about a school’s “town and gown” relations simply by speaking to the locals. Do they complain loudly about “those darn college kids?” Or do they encourage student business in their establishments by offering specials or working with the campus one card system so that students can charge purchases to their student accounts with a swipe of their ID? Also check with the admissions or residential life office(s) to find out how many students live on campus and how many live in the local community. If a large population live off-campus, find out where they are and check out those off-campus living options – are they clean and well-maintained? Or do they look like the house from Animal House? (That reference was for you parents out there.) Do local restaurants and bars provide all of the entertainment for students or are there a lot of organized activities that will keep you on campus?
One final note as you schedule your campus visits and related research trip into the local community is to make sure to listen carefully to your tour guide when he or she talks about how the students relate to the area off-campus. Do they talk about volunteer projects with local youth? Is the emphasis on the local social scene (e.g. parties, bars, off-campus housing events, Greek life)? Do they feel safe when they leave campus or do they keep to the perimeter?
The answers to all of those questions and the rest of the information you compile as you investigate the local area is all going to play just as important a role in your college search as finding a school that offers you the right balance between your academic and riding goals. Remember, you’re not just looking at a place where you will learn for four years, you’re also looking at a place where you will live and where your new social life will be. Your expectations for what that social life will be should be taken into account and you need to determine if the community surrounding the campus you’re visiting offers what you seek or if you need to look somewhere else. (After all, you can change location easily but the school can’t do the same.)