This week we are out on the road again at College Fairs for traditional undergraduates sponsored by the various county offices of education, next week the Christian College Fairs. There is always a good turn out with busloads of kids with their teachers, and parents with their kids. It is noisy, exciting, intimidating. Students and parents walk away with bags full of brochures and glossy “view books” from dozens of schools. At the Fresno fair this week all of the regional public schools will be there, as well as all of the regional independents like Fresno Pacific, independents (and a few publics) from up and down the state, and some from across the country. Some, like Notre Dame (I remember from last year), will have alumni representatives who live in the area. It is a good time to do some comparisons, ask questions, and gather some information. It is a welcome sign, I think, to see the variety of schools that are available to our students. This is part of the genius of American higher education.
But it is also bewildering–many of our schools sound the same, promise the same things, and look the same. It is difficult to distinguish one from the other, or know how to choose one from another. Every year parents beginning the search, and planning for tours ask me what to look for, how to think about what they are seeing. So for those parents and students who are beginning the tour, here is my personal list, some of which I don’t think you will find in too many other places. There’s no magic, just good, common sense, I hope:
- Visit the campus and take a tour. Listen to how the school portrays itself. Does the tour guide talk about the things that are important to you? Do you like what you see? Is the campus well taken care of? Ask questions.
- Walk around the campus on your own and get a feel for the place. Do people greet you? Who are the students there? Does it look like all are welcomed? Look at the bulletin boards. Are there activities and events on the campus that you would like to be a part of, that bring an added dimension to the campus? There may be things you see that you are uncomfortable with–universities bring many kinds speaker and events to their campuses to stimulate discussion. But overall, does the atmosphere of the campus attract you? Does it encourage a sense that you would like to be a part of it? If it is a Christian college, visit a chapel time. Does it encourage you to join in and enliven you? Do you feel welcomed?
- Visit a class session and sit in on a lecture or discussion. Ask for one in a subject you are interested in. The Admissions office will choose one of the most admired and well liked professors, so take note. You are likely to see one of the best. Were students and the professor engaged in the topic at hand? Were they asking questions, digging into the data or problem? Ask yourself whether you learned something and whether you can see yourself as a student in the class? I have had parents and students talk to me after a class session of mine that they visited to ask about how I taught, how I liked teaching at Fresno Pacific, or something about the class session. Introduce yourself and see how they respond to you.
- Visit the university’s website. Ask all of the questions above. Could you get the information you wanted? Or was it difficult to find out anything? That might be a clue.
- Talk to students. Ask them how they like it there? How are classes? What are they planning to do after graduation? What do they do on the weekends? Have they made friends on campus? Do the proferssors make time for them? What do they look forward to every year? Get the students talking. You will get a feel very quickly.
A university is a place where you will spend a lot of time, and where you will invest a lot personally and financially. It should be place where you become part of a community of discussion, learning, and scholarship. It should see you, the student, as a valued member of that community–the most valued. We hear a lot about rankings, and they do give you at least some indication about a university. But they are only one indication, and there are literally hundreds of very good colleges and universities with very good faculties, which are looking for good students. Often the test is what is sometimes called “fit.” Does the school fit? Is it a good fit for you? Will it wear well?
I had to take a break while writing this to attend a meeting (what else?) and on my way back stopped to speak with Peggy the director of operations in our Continuing Education division. She gave me a new one. A parent had just called whose child is a potential student here, and wanted to speak directly with one of our Biblical studies professors. He wanted to know what we were about, how classes were taught, and probably had a theological question or two to ask. That’s another way.