Choosing a College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell

Chapter 10: The Campus Visit


The Local Community

Most colleges have regular programs of campus visits by students. Often they can find a place in a dormitory for a visiting student and a place in some classes that students and parents wish to sit in on. These visits can tell you things that no amount of reading can. When you hear stereos blasting away in the dorms, on past midnight, that carries its own unmistakable message. When the food tastes so bad you can't eat it, no one needs to say anything. When graffiti defaces the buildings, inside and out, you get a clue as to what kind of people you are dealing with.

Not all clues you pick up on campus visits are bad. When I walked all over the Whitman College campus without discovering a single bit of graffiti, that told me something positive about the attitudes and behavior of the students. When I saw valuable possessions left outdoors unguarded at Harvey Mudd College, that was also an encouraging sign. Just walking around campus asking directions and finding helpfulness at every turn, told me something about the University of Evansville. These are all small things, but they add up-and sometimes, when the campus visit is over and you consider them all, they add up to a pretty clear picture, one way or the other.

Like anything else, a campus visit will be more productive the better it is planned. Make reservations weeks in advance and make a list before you get there, so that you will know what you want to check out. That list should include: the dormitories, the food, the classes, safety, the library, the bookstore, and-most important of all-the people. Parents will probably notice different things than a student will notice, and miss some things that a student would see. That is all to the good because, between you, you will cover a wider range of things than either would have covered alone.

Whatever you notice, write it down. Months can pass between a campus visit and the decision to apply-and more months between the application and your receipt of acceptance letters, which is when you must make the most important decision. Do not expect every memory to survive all that time, much less to survive accurately. If you visit several campuses, memories may start to run together leaving you uncertain as to what happened where. Worse, you may remember incidents on one campus as happening on another. Write it down when it happens.


It is usually easy to see college admissions officials during a campus visit and it may be easy to strike up conversations with students or with people in town, but getting to see the professors is much harder on some campuses. At some large research universities, you may get no closer to a big-name professor than his secretary's office. This is not just because you are a visitor; his own students may have the same problem.

This too differs greatly from one college to another. On some campuses, most professors have their office doors open and will not mind at all if you stop in for a couple of questions or to ask for a copy of a syllabus. A campus visit is the best way-perhaps the only way-to find out what faculty attitudes and availability are like at a college you are considering.

For someone choosing a college, the most important thing about a professor is his teaching. While you cannot just intrude into a classroom where you have not been invited, often the admissions office can find some professors who don't mind having visitors. Try to arrange this before you arrive for the visit-or at least early on the first day, if you are going to be on campus more than one day. When you go to a professor's lecture, take a checklist with you, rather than rely on general impressions written down afterwards-or, worse yet, rely on memory. The checklist should include simple things that you should be able to expect from any professor, but cannot:

  1. Does the professor arrive on time?
  2. Does the lecture begin promptly?
  3. Is the lecture well organized or rambling?
  4. Are questions from the students welcomed? Answered clearly?
  5. Are students who disagree with the professor treated with respect or put down?
  6. Is the professor available after the lecture is over for informal discussions with students who have further questions or comments?
You may not be able to answer every question on your checklist for every professor, but the answers you are able to write down can still be very valuable-especially if they fall into a clear pattern at one college and a very different pattern at another. At some large research universities, a big-name professor may think nothing of showing up late for class, and after the lecture may exit so quickly that a student sitting in the back of the room would have to be an Olympic sprinter to catch him before he has escaped to his office or the parking lot. Not all are like this by any means. But if your campus visits include a major research university, try to sit in on the lectures of some senior professors. Sometimes the younger faculty members have not yet developed the same arrogance, or dare not show it yet. In any case, see for yourself. While attending lectures will not enable you to make a complete assessment of the teaching, for reasons already discussed in chapters 5 and 9, it can give you good, first-hand information on some important aspects of teaching. It will add to the accumulation of information from various sources, which in the end can add up to enough to make it much easier to choose a college. One of the other items you should try to add to your collection are some syllabuses from courses at each college you visit. The syllabus in some subject like mathematics may contain little more than the name of the textbook and a list of pages to read and problems to do on given dates. For some "social science" courses, however, there may be a large number of readings from various sources. You may not be able to evaluate these, but perhaps you will know someone who can. Even in a more or less cut- and-dried course like introductory calculus, a math teacher may be able to tell you whether the textbook used is appropriate for that level or is too easy or too hard. In social science courses where differences of opinions and viewpoints come in, someone who knows the subject can tell you whether there is some attempt at balance in the syllabus or whether it is so lopsided as to be propaganda rather than education. Where there is only one textbook used in the course, then it matters greatly whether that textbook presents a balanced interpretation. For example, if an American history course uses as its textbook A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, then you know that the course is not only propaganda but crude propaganda at that. Pravda's attacks on the United States are more subtle than Zinn's. It is not the textbook writer's politics but the book's own quality that is at issue. Another history textbook, on slavery, is Roll, Jordan Roll by Marxist professor Eugene Genovese but it is a real work of scholarship and perhaps the best book on the subject. If you miss an opportunity to get the syllabuses you want during a campus visit, you can write for them after you get back home. Most professors will probably be glad to send you any extras they may have on hand. You can usually get the name of the professor teaching a particular course from the college catalogue. If not, the catalogue will probably list the department chairman, and the chairman can pass the request along to the right person. Not all of these syllabuses will give you significant clues. But if some do, you are that much ahead, and it hasn't cost much money or time. Because Howard Zinn's book is so bad that it makes a good litmus test of what a course is trying to do, you may want to ask for a syllabus for the American history course on each campus. You may discover positive as well as negative things from a syllabus. If it's a course on social philosophy that assigns both John Rawls and Robert Nozick, then you know that the professor wants you to deal with opposing viewpoints, not just buy some party line. Similarly if it is an economics course that assigns both John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman, or a course on Constitutional law that assigns such scholars on one side as Laurence Tribe or Ronald Dworkin, and on the other side such scholars as Richard Posner or Robert Bork. There are still professors who honor the old adage: "We are here to teach you how to think, not what to think."


Dormitories seldom look impressive, either for architecture or neatness. But if the dormitories on the campus you visit have halls that look like a pigsty and the place strikes you as a firetrap, you need to make a note of it. If it is possible to have an ovenight stay, this will be the best indicator of all. A student left alone will quickly discover whether it is easy or hard to meet people, as well as whether it is quiet enough to study or quiet enough to sleep. There are also things that young people can talk about together much more freely when parents are not around. Depending on what you are looking for and what the college has to offer, the overnight stay can make or break your decision to apply. As noted in Chapter 3, some co-ed dorms are more co-ed than others. When young people are talking without the older generation around, it shouldn't be hard to find out about this, as well as about the availability of drugs and alcohol, and how prevalent is their use. Even with all due allowance for the fact that one night is just one night, and may not be typical, some things will tell you all you want to know-or more than you want to know.


Parents may be staying in a motel near the campus while the student is spending the night in the dorms, but they can also be busy, gathering information about the town and its people. Just walking around a little and keeping your eyes and ears open will often turn up a few interesting indicators of what the community is like. If the streets near the college are full of bookstores, coffee shops, bicycle stores, and pizza parlors, that is a very different scene from a college ringed around with porno shops and shady characters dealing drugs on the streets. If all the clothing stores near the campus sell things that are way beyond your budget, you may want to think about whether you have gotten in with a country club crowd, which might be uncomfortable socially as well as financially. As with other aspects of a college, minor differences don't matter but big differences can. If parents take each meal at a different restaurant in town, and chat with waitressess or cashiers at each, they are bound to pick up more impressions or clues from more people. It may also be well worth the price of a bottle of aspirin and a couple of postcards to stop by the local drugstore and chat with the people who run it. If you are driving, filling up the car in town will provide yet another occasion to talk with someone local and unofficial. Just turning the radio dial can sometimes give you a clue, especially if all you can get is bluegrass music and reports on hog prices. If you are really into bluegrass music and hog prices, you may have found Utopia. If not, then you are sadder but wiser. It may be useful not only to pick up a copy of the student newspaper and the local community newspaper while you are visiting, but also to buy a subscription as well. A month's subscription to each will probably tell you all you need to know, but some college newspapers can only be subscribed to for a semester, a quarter, or an academic year. However, that should not be a deterrent, as the cost is usually modest. The Harvard Crimson is one of the most expensive student newspapers, because it can only be subscribed to for a full academic year, but even so the cost is less than $50. Other student newspaper subscriptions cost less than half of that. If you are visiting half a dozen campuses, you may be able to subscribe to the student newspaper at each college for a total cost of less than a hundred dollars. That is a bargain for information about an investment that can run into tens of thousands of dollars and four years of your life. It is not necessary to read every issue from cover to cover. A quick glance may tell you whether there is anything salient in an issue and if you get three significnt clues in a month, you will have gotten your money's worth. You can seldom buy valuable information about such a big investment for such little money. One of the things you can learn about from local and campus newspapers-and other sources-is safety. If the biggest crime news in a month is the theft of a bicycle that was left outdoors and unlocked overnight, that tells you something-something welcome, in this case. This may in fact be the biggest crime news in some small college towns. The student newspaper at The University of Chicago, The Maroon, regularly publishes official crime statistics for the area, while other college papers report only serious or unusual crimes on campus. Sometimes you can get an impression of safety by noticing stores in town after they have closed. If a photography store leaves expensive cameras sitting exposed behind a plate glass window, it is probably because the danger of theft is not worth the cost of an iron grate or the bother of putting the cameras away every night. With something as important as safety, you do not want to rely solely on casual observations. Ask questions at the college. Is there an organized escort service for young women coming home late at night from the library or from social events? Does anyone use it, if it is available-or do they feel secure enough that it isn't worth the bother? Does the campus security officer have any idea (or statistics) on campus crime? Talk with him and find out. If the college publishes a pamphlet of safety tips, you should get one and take it with you. It is something to keep, not only until you decide where to apply, but also until admissions decisions have been made and you have to choose among the colleges that accepted you. For a more detailed statistical profile of the local community, you may even want to purchase a copy of a Census publication called County and City Data Book, which gives everything from the local crime rate to the ethnic, economic, and educational breakdowns of the local population. This may seem like an awful lot to go into, and it would certainly be far too much at an earlier stage of the weeding-out process. But, by the time of the campus visit, your list of colleges should be down to a half dozen or so. It may be worth putting these few under a microscope, especially if you like the college but have some real questions that trouble you about its location. Looking into the local community does not imply that a student is expected to spend a lot of time there. The local community may be important primarily in terms of safety and negative influences in general. Its other features may be of limited relevance, especially at colleges with heavy and demanding work loads. Studying into the wee hours of the morning in New Brunswick, New Jersey is not very different from studying into the wee hours of the morning in Chicago or Denver. Most social life at many colleges is also centered on campus. Those students with especially wide cultural horizons may be concerned about being near a major symphony orchestra, art museum, ski resorts, discos, and the opera. But such people will have no problem checking such things out. Most others will find that there is far more going on, on campus, than they can keep up with-even if the campus itself is located in the middle of nowhere. Local community newspapers and student newspapers that you have subscribed to will continue to add to your knowledge of the cultural scene at the college and in town after your campus visit is over. This will not only give a picture of the amount and kind of entertainment available, but also may provide clues about the diversity of speakers and the tolerance or intolerance on campus. If Jane Fonda speaks one month and Milton Friedman the next, then that is a hopeful sign, especially if both speak without disruption. During your visit, the college public affairs office may be able to supply a list of the previous speakers on campus. Ask to see it. Take a copy with you if you can or write down the names if you can't. Even if some (or all) of the names mean nothing to you, your family, friends, teachers or classmates may be able to identify enough of them, after you return from the visit, to enable you to form a picture.


After you have gone around and seen a few colleges, their libraries-like other campus features-may start to look like they are all the same. But they are enormously different if you know what to look for, and these differences can sometimes tell you a lot about differences in the schools, the students, and the quality of the education. One of the most important things about a library can usually be found on the front door: the hours the library is open. Write them down in a notebook during your campus visit. When the library at one college closes at 5 P.M. on weekends, while the library at another college remains open past midnight on weekends, that gives you a clue. When you walk around inside a library and notice whether the students are quietly sitting down poring over their books or mostly standing around talking and checking out the opposite sex, that's another clue. The time of day when you look at a library can make a difference. If you show up at the library when it first opens up in the morning, on some campuses you will see a crowd of students already gathered outside, waiting to get in, while on other campuses only a handful of hardy souls will enter the library during the first hour it is open. Some college libraries are almost deserted on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon. At other colleges, the library remains packed as long as the doors are open. No single clue by itself is all-important. Moreover, you have to make allowances for the fact that your campus visit may be just before exams at one school and right after exams at another. But, even when all due allowances are made, often the clues picked up at the library all point in the same direction and dovetail with clues picked up elsewhere on campus and in town. Keeping a notebook on your observations at each college will make it easier to see a pattern in all these separate items and to compare colleges after you return home. If you are fortunate enough to have parents who are professionals in some field-if your father is a chemist or your mother is a sociologist-then they can check out whether the library has the leading or latest books in their specialties. Probably they will, but if the library lacks the books and scholarly journals that a well-informed faculty would need, chances are that the faculty is not as well informed (or as interested in keeping well informed) as it should be. They may be fine teachers, in the sense of classroom performance, but what they teach may be out of date. Libraries are an integral part of the teaching process-or should be-and large disparities between libraries on different campuses are often indicative of differences in the whole approach to education. Where mass-production education reigns, reading assignments are likely to be concentrated in textbooks that the students buy, thereby requiring relatively little use of the library. Where the education provides more diverse viewpoints and is enriched with articles from scholarly journals, or teaches the history of ideas from original sources rather than textbook summaries, all this means much heavier use of the library and requires far larger library resources in proportion to the student body. In this context, the number of books in a library is not just a dry statistic, though it must be assessed in terms of the number of students on campus. For example, the library at the University of Chicago has only about 37 percent more books than the library at Ohio State University in Columbus. This would not be a very important difference by itself. However, when you realize that Ohio State has more than five times as many students as the University of Chicago, the real disparity becomes much greater. There are more than 7 times as many books per student at Chicago. Even allowing for the fact that most students at Chicago are post- graduate students, while most of those at Ohio State are undergraduates, the disparity is still so huge as to tell you something about the differences in education at the two institutions. As with other academic indicators, such as S.A.T. scores or faculty Ph.D.'s, small statistical differences in libraries do not necessarily mean anything- but vast differences raise questions, at the very least. Such indicators are especially valuable when comparing colleges you have not known of before. You may never have heard of either Goucher College or Grove City College, but when you learn that the library at Goucher has twice as many books for half as many students, you have at least one clue as to the differences between the two schools. The whole content of college courses can be strongly influenced by the limitations of the library. My reading lists for courses I taught at Cornell, Amherst, and Douglass College contained far more "outside readings" than my reading lists for the same courses when I taught them at U.C.L.A. In turn, this meant that classroom discussions at U.C.L.A. were more limited and that some important and challenging topics could only be summarized in lectures rather than being explored by students in class discussions, in a way that would have produced a deeper understanding. Although U.C.L.A. has the largest library collection of these four institutions, its huge undergraduate population and bureaucratic regulations had the net effect of watering down those courses where supplementary readings would have been especially valuable. The U.C.L.A. research library is superb-which is fine for professors and graduate students-but the library handling reserved readings for undergraduates could not compare in quality to libraries serving much smaller student bodies at Amherst, Cornell, or Douglass College. As in other areas involving statistics, numbers make good servants but bad masters. They cannot be followed blindly without regard to what is being compared. Not only must library resources be related to the number of students they serve; comparisons between libraries at engineering schools and libraries at liberal arts colleges must be avoided, along with other pitfalls. The best comparisons are between similar institutions: two liberal arts colleges or two research universities, for example. The vast library holdings at the U.C.L.A. law school or the Harvard Business School do little for an undergraduate at these institutions. At Rutgers University, the library for the whole system stretching from Camden (near Philadelphia) to Newark (near New York) -- contains 3.8 million volumes. But it is very misleading to list 3.8 million volumes as the library holdings at Douglass College, as Cass and Birnbaum's Comparative Guide to American Colleges does. All these books are available to Douglass College students in some theoretical sense, but they are by no means in the library on their campus. Nor are they on any one of the other Rutgers University campuses for which the same 3.8 million volumes are listed as their library holdings. When you reach the point where you have only a handful of colleges left to consider, if you want to compare institutions which have multiple libraries for multiple purposes, your best bet may be to seek data on the volumes in their undergraduate liberal arts college library on one campus. Even this provides only a rough indicator, but it will probably be less misleading than statistics on university-wide library holdings, especially for a multiple- campus university. The campus visit is a good time to get such information but of course you can also phone or write for it. Like libraries, college bookstores may also have a few useful clues to offer during a campus visit. In some college bookstores, the only serious books are the textbooks assigned for courses. If the rest of the books are few and fluffy, it is probably because neither students nor faculty have much demand for anything beyond that. If it's all Danielle Steele and coffee-table books, once you get out of the textbook section, this may tell you something. Again, you have to make allowances. If there is a mammoth private bookstore across the street doing a land-office business in heavyweight reading, the college store may decide that it can just stick to textbooks. One of the most magnificient bookstores you can find is located in South Hadley, Massachusetts, near Mount Holyoke College. What the college bookstore has may be much less of an indicator of student and faculty intellectual interests there than it would be otherwise. However, nothing of this sort can explain the meagre offerings of the college bookstore at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.


No college visit is complete without sampling the food on campus. This is unlikely to be the high point of the visit but it is a very necessary evil. College food is seldom haute cuisine but there are significant differences between mediocre, edible, and swill. These differences can translate into substantial differences in the cost of an education, if students are frequently driven to buy meals at local fast-food restaurants and pizza parlors, despite having been forced to pay in advance for the college meal plan. Despite the desirability of a list of colleges whose food is excellent, my 30 years of visiting campuses across the United States and around the world have left few memories of outstanding food, even in the faculty clubs. Perhaps you may find some. The more urgent practical task, however, is to distinguish the mediocre from the truly awful. At Willamette University, for example, I sat down to lunch hungry from having skipped breakfast, but ended up consuming only a glass of milk and the crackers that came with the soup. There was no way I was going to eat the soup itself, the sandwich, or even the dessert. Still, it was a valuable experience and saved me the cost of an application fee. That is the spirit in which eating on campus should be approached during a campus visit. As a visitor, you can always leave the food alone after you have checked it out, and go eat in a restaurant in town. But four years of doing that can be very expensive. If the food doesn't pass muster but the college is good otherwise, see if the meal plan is optional or mandatory. If the meal plan is optional, the next order of business is to check out the local alternatives for quality and cost. At some colleges and universities, the campus is the only game in town, as far as affordable meals are concerned. At other places, there are wholesome meals available off campus at reasonable prices or there may be cooking facilities for the students in the dormitories. Seldom, however, are any of these alternatives as desirable as having good food already prepared for you, so that your time is free for taking care of the business of getting an education, rather than being used up shopping at supermarkets, cooking, and washing dishes. In judging food, it is worth remembering that the kind of food you can put up with for one day during a visit is not necessarily the kind of food you could eat all year long. If not, then taking breaks from the campus food can easily add hundreds of dollars to the annual college cost.

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