All the more reason why visitors should do as much homework as they can—and ask a lot of questions. For instance, the federal government now requires all colleges to report their graduation rates. Schools that do well on that measure usually brag about it in their tours, but those that do poorly tend not to reveal the information without prodding. And unless visitors ask, they probably won’t learn anything specific about how academic advising works, or what happens when students find that a required course is full, or how the college helps students who struggle.
Whatever cues they take from Disney, Kallay and Gilbert aren’t your smooth-talking slicksters from central casting. On the contrary, they’re thoughtful students of pop culture who think in terms of narratives. Their idea of selling college as a life-changing, sensory experience might offend academic purists, who could ask, “Isn’t college supposed to be about education?” But families’ decisions often don’t hinge on perceptions of academic quality alone. Most also consider costs, as well as all the intangibles—the feel of the campus, the vibe on the quad, and the kinds of people they meet there.
Although colleges can and should give families much more revealing outcomes data than they do, it would be impossible to quantify everything that students experience once they enroll. The friendships they make. The conversations they have. The books they read. To choose a college is to make a leap of faith in a world where some things aren’t measurable. Kallay and Gilbert provide a useful service to the extent that they help prospective students get a better sense for those intangibles.
So go ahead, take the tour. But also take this advice from a father I interviewed who visited seven colleges this spring: “Don’t leave your bullshit detector at home.”
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