Archive | May, 2011

College Tour Fatigue

17 May

My eyes glazed over as the chatter of words from the undergraduate tour guide registered as “blah, blah, blah,” to my tired brain.  It was spring break and we were on yet another campus.  If this is Tuesday, we must be…where?  Not for the first time it has occurred to me that maybe we were overdoing this college visiting, and now my cerebral faculties were in an imminent state of meltdown.

I couldn’t distinguish among the colleges anymore.  They were starting to look alike with their similar architecture: collegiate gothic, Georgian redbrick, modern glass-and-steel, quads, greens.  Sometimes I get a tingling sense of déjà vu when driving to a college because so many of them are located in poor neighborhoods where they share an uneasy relationship with the locals.

If you attend enough information sessions, they start to sound the same too.  They promise personal attention with low student to faculty ratios, caring and accessible faculty members and advisers, opportunities to do exciting research as an undergraduate, a vibrant campus life, and student organizations to suit every obscure interest.  (Quidditch.  Really.)  And along the way they also promise to provide your child with a rigorous education.

These colleges all seem to want the same type of students: engaged, passionate, intellectually curious, those who have challenged themselves with the most demanding courses in their high school, and who have demonstrated leadership abilities.

Blah, blah, blah.

Before I completely degenerate into jadedness, it’s time to take a step back.

There is no perfect college.  Like all organizations run by flawed humans, each college or university has drawbacks.  Some are too big, some are too small, some are too difficult to get into, some are bureaucratic, some don’t offer the right academic programs, all are jaw-droppingly expensive, the list goes on.

Where to attend college is a big decision and deserves our careful attention.  As application time draws nearer, this process is taking on a growing momentum of its own that sometimes it feels like it is the biggest decision in my daughter’s life.  And of course I know from my solidly middle-aged perspective that it is not.  Other decisions in life will have greater impact: whether and whom to marry, whether to have children, whether and how to live life with integrity and faith.

If anything, touring around two-dozen colleges has convinced me that many, many colleges can and will provide a first rate education.  So as I cling to my belief that my daughter can and will end up at a college that’s suitable for her, I slowly focus my attention back to the tour guide.

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Trip review: American University

9 May

American University (AU) was the last college we visited in the Washington D.C. area in February.  Located off Massachusetts Avenue within walking distance of the Tenleytown metro stop on the red line, AU is similar in size to Georgetown with 6,300 undergraduates.  Most of its campus buildings are arrayed around a large green quadrangle and the buildings are an eclectic mix of modern and neoclassical architecture.

We were shut out of the information session (AU requires early registration to attend an information session) so we waited around for the campus tour to begin.  There were others who were also waiting for the tour and soon more and more people were coming in.  Seeing our growing numbers, an admissions officer decided to create an informal information session just for those of us waiting around.  She had extra chairs brought into a smaller room nearby and ushered us inside.  Even though we were packed cheek to jowl in the small room, it was considerate of them to accommodate us this way.

There are five undergraduate schools: arts and sciences (the largest school), business, communication, international service, and public affairs.  In addition to the standard majors, they offer some unusual ones, such as a major in business and music (good for those wishing to work in the music industry), an interdisciplinary major in communication, legal studies, economics and government, and audio production/technology.

There is an emphasis on languages across the schools.  For example, the Kogod business school offers a major in business, language and culture studies with tracks in Arabic, French, German, Russian, and Spanish (alas, not in Chinese).  The School of International Studies (the largest international relations school in the US) offers language and area studies in French/Europe, German/Europe, Russian/Area Studies, and Spanish/Latin America.  The School of Communication offers a major in Foreign Language and Communication Media.

The strength of the university lies in its international relations, political science and business programs much like other D.C. universities that benefit from Washington’s location as the nation’s capitol.  For prospective students who want to be in D.C. and wish to study those disciplines, AU is easier to get into.  This year’s admission rate is 41% and the number of applications grew 10%.  The freshman retention rate of 91% indicates that most students are happy with their education here.

The top 15% of admitted freshmen are eligible for the honors program.  Academic merit scholarships are also available.  Tuition is about $37,554 for the 2011-2012 academic year, and average room and board costs $13,648 a year.  By now we had gathered from our visits that living in D.C. is expensive but for those who are interested in politics, government, and international affairs, you cannot beat Washington D.C.’s location with its access to international organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and all the foreign embassies.  It would be an exciting place to spend four years.

Guest Blogger: David Rosenblum

2 May

Today is the day most high school seniors have to decide where they will matriculate this fall and inform the colleges.  For those fortunate enough to have choices, the last several weeks will have been spent touring schools yet again and attending admitted students day.  My friend, David Rosenblum, is a parent whose son went through this a few years ago and I invited him to share his thoughts with us here.

What Do You Think?

We sat on a swinging bench, gently swaying back and forth.  My son was 18 and it was a few days before most colleges expected commitments from newly admitted students.  “What do you think?” he asked quietly.

I gathered my thoughts.  He had many great choices…amazing choices…but what did I think?  I flashed back to my own experience although it was three decades ago.

Times were different then.  I recall no pressure to seek a school solely for its brand name.  My kids know I’ve been there: how I turned down acceptance to an Ivy League university so I could go to a state school that I felt better suited my needs and offered unique opportunities for me.  When they first heard that story, they looked at me like I had thrown out a winning lottery ticket.  For my residency training I did choose an “Ivy League” system but that was a carefully thought-out choice and a means to attain what I strove for, not a destination unto itself.  How do I convey that?  How do you encourage someone to be true to himself without dismissing the realities of the world in which we live, with all its prejudices and inequities?

And who can blame our kids – or parents for that matter – for striving for what they think is “best”?  Many parents and students seem to be on a quest for that Holy Grail of Higher Education – the most selective school that few can get into – as if selectivity itself defines a good personal fit.  To this end, kids feel pressure to get the perfect SATs and GPAs, to take the most number of AP classes, to perform the obligatory community service and, of course, to search for the hook to make them stand out – some discovery, authorship, or national award.  As if attending a highly selective school assures success.

Of course, we know it does not.  And we understand that it is not so much where you go, but what you make of it when you are there.  Yet, how does one balance this against our societal pressures and realities of life, where name brands speak volumes to one’s peers, where fame, possessions, and where one lives may be more important to some than how one makes a difference in our world.  And what about brand name colleges?  Even our President transferred from a relatively unknown school, to an Ivy League university, followed by an Ivy League law school.  What impact did that have on his path?

We gently swung back and forth.  “What do you think?” he asked again softly.  How do I encourage him to look beyond the narrow view of US News and World Report college rankings?  How do I encourage him to have a healthy perspective on the “selectivity” of the schools he is choosing among?  My thoughts become more centered:  How do I give him the courage to say no to something that so many others are hoping for, or the confidence to say yes, regardless of others’ perceptions, if it really fits him well?

I choose my words carefully and told him what I knew to be true.  “Well,” I said, “You have some terrific choices, and I know you will do well in any of them.  The real question is,” and I searched for the right words, ”which one feels right to you?”

We chatted for a while on that slowly swinging bench.  He told me about his view of the advantages and disadvantages of each school he was considering.  He spoke of the experiences he had on his visits, the people he met, the opportunities each school presented to him and which school he was favoring.

It was clear he had decided.  And I was so proud of him.  Not for all the prep for getting into college, not for those SAT and AP scores, and not for the acceptances he had, but rather, for approaching this decision with maturity and balance.  To him, it must have seemed like the most important and influential decision of his life.  I knew, however, it was neither.  But it was an important step towards thoughtful and independent adulthood.

“I think it’s a great choice!” I said.  And just in case he was still wondering, I told him again just how proud we are of him.

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