For weary campus-hopping families, the changes Kallay promotes are welcome in many ways. In nine years of covering higher education, I’ve taken the official tour at about fifty campuses. Most were bland, rote, and robotic; the memory of them evaporated almost instantly. Today, tours of two different campuses are less likely than before to seem eerily similar, which, for folks visiting ten schools in five days, is very good news. Moreover, when prospective students visit colleges, they’re not just seeking information about outcomes; they want to know what it would be like to eat, sleep, and socialize at a school for four or more years. So tours designed to convey that “experience” provide something consumers want.
But make no mistake: the newfangled college tour is a more sophisticated sales pitch than ever. Behind the scenes, many tours include an increasingly large cast of participants, including administrators, professors, and students, who think long and hard about what visitors see and hear. Traditional tours included a litany of statistics, all meant to convey the college’s quality. Now, tour guides appeal to your emotions with personal stories and anecdotes. It’s recruitment by eye contact. At their best, modern tours are more candid and conversational—but at their worst, they’re just more artfully manipulative.
Recently, York College of Pennsylvania hired Kallay to help transform its tour. As a result, the college enacted a series of small changes. Previously, visitors gathered in the cramped lobby of the administration building. Now, the college directs them to the welcome center in the student union, where they will find coffee, cookies, and light conversation. Student guides are trained to tell stories about their time at York, the more specific, the better.
When guides see a faculty member walk by, they’re supposed to stop and introduce them. When prospective students go inside dorms, they get to sign their name on a wall. Before leaving the campus, they can take a York Peppermint Patty (created just a few miles from campus) and a York College water bottle. “The goal is to create a warm memory about the York College culture,” the college’s Web site says.
Choosing a college is often an irrational decision, based partly on the judgments teenagers and their parents make as they stroll down brick walkways and stare up at bell towers. Students can sour on a college because they have an argument with their parents in the car, or because they don’t like the tour guide’s hairstyle or clothes or sense of humor. Sometimes, a rainy day can drown a student’s interest in a college, or vice versa. One high school counselor tells me that her husband chose his alma mater because it poured during his first visit, soaking the T-shirt of his buxom tour guide.
Simply put, the tour is the blind date of the admissions process. Looks matter a lot to the beholder, and first impressions do much to shape future actions. That’s why admissions officers have long called the tour the “golden mile” and the “million-dollar walk.” This walk has been a way to promote college as a place of contentment, beauty, and plenty. A generation ago, Ernest L. Boyer examined this ritual while conducting a landmark study of higher education, for which he spent three years visiting thirty colleges and interviewing professors, students, and parents. In 1987, Boyer, a former U.S. commissioner of education, published his findings in College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. He concluded that colleges’ priorities had drifted away from teaching.
In a passage on campus visits, Boyer described how the tours tended to whisk students past the library, only to linger inside student union buildings, where there was much to eat, buy, and do. Riffs on dorm living and social activities were more common than mentions of the instructors who taught undergraduate courses. “One had the distinct impression that the campus was a place with abundant social life,” Boyer wrote. “Education was ignored.”
When Boyer and his fellow researchers asked students what influenced them most during visits, about half mentioned the “friendliness” of other students they had met. Yet nothing was more important than the appearance of the campus. “We gained the distinct impression that when it comes to recruiting students,” Boyer wrote, “the director of buildings and grounds may be more important than the academic dean.”
Since then, college officials have thought harder about the experiential elements of the tour. One reason: parents have become co-purchasers, a constituency for a college to impress during a visit. Students themselves have become savvier consumers, applying to more colleges (and visiting more of them) than they did a generation ago. Finally, the Web allows shoppers to learn the basics about a campus before setting foot on it. This is why many campus administrators now believe facts-and-figures information sessions just won’t cut it anymore.
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