Accidental Truths on a College Trip | Inside Higher Ed

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Late last week, the three of us went up to Providence and Boston to visit four of The Girl’s possible colleges in person. The New Jersey K-12 schools were closed Thursday and Friday for a statewide teachers’ convention, so at every campus, N.J. folks were out in force. It became a running joke as we went from one info session to the next.

Before we saw the colleges in person, TG had a hard time distinguishing among them beyond a few obvious points. Virtual presentations tend to blend together; watch a few back to back and it’s hard to distinguish one from another. In-person visits offer a much more vivid picture of each, for better or worse.

The COVID-related rules varied from campus to campus. At the first, each prospective student was allowed only one guest, even though the tour was entirely outside. I didn’t really understand the reasoning but took one for the team and volunteered to explore the city while they did the tour. It turned out well. College towns have a certain feel to them; I laughed out loud when I saw a bright pink trash can with “No War but Class War” written on the side with a smiley face below. I doubt that it converted anyone, but as trash cans go, it had a certain panache. Perhaps because she didn’t see the trash can, TG loved this one. It had a nice blend of campus and city, and the campus atmosphere was positive.

The second stop allowed two guests per student, so we were both able to tag along. It featured an indoor info session (masks required), followed by a tour. The info session was a bit salesy for my taste, but otherwise within bounds. The tour might or might not have been effective if the guide’s microphone were better; as it was, we caught maybe a third of what she said. Even with that, though, the sheer physical presence of the campus made an impression. It was the only school on this trip that overlapped with TB’s visits a few years ago. I liked it better this time, but only relatively. TG seemed neutral on it.

The third was a genuine letdown. We had to do a self-guided outdoor walking tour, which is understandable, but the place seemed deserted. For a Thursday in the middle of the semester, that was hard to explain. The campus was much more self-contained than any of us expected, which is the sort of information you just don’t get (usually) from a virtual tour. Before we went, it was No. 2 on TG’s list; I think it dropped a few notches once she actually saw it. It had some fun architecture, but the overall impression was that it was a glum bubble. Coming on the heels of the others, the contrast was striking.

The final one, on Friday, again only allowed one visitor per student. TW took the morning to reconnect with an old friend in the area, so I went on this one. It featured an info session with four current students, followed by a very good tour. It also featured an admissions director who either hadn’t been briefed on the party line or who just didn’t care anymore.

The party line on early-decision applications is that even though they’re binding, they don’t affect the financial aid offers students receive. That’s supposed to be particularly true at colleges that meet full need. Need doesn’t vary depending on when you apply. But this admissions director noted offhandedly — he noted everything offhandedly — that part of the appeal of early-decision applicants, from the institution’s point of view, is that “we don’t have to compete for them once they’re accepted.” I tried to keep a poker face, but it was a struggle. Other than sweetening financial offers, I’m not sure what “compete” could mean in this context. He also compared the acceptance rate of early decision to the acceptance rate for regular decision — more than twice as high — and invited us to “do the math.”

I was … surprised. This was quite a departure from the usual public statements. TG noted that her darker suspicions seemed confirmed; I couldn’t argue. If nothing else, I felt vindicated in my having advised TG to avoid early decision; we’re just not in a position to work around a stingy financial offer given the sticker prices these places charge. Apparently, “need” is negotiable.

He was even more blunt when it came to discussion of what “test optional” means. He suggested that if your “superscored” SAT is above 1460, it’s worthwhile to submit scores; if not, it probably isn’t. I was surprised that he actually named a number. (A “superscored” SAT means that if you took it more than once, you submit the best scores for each section. So if you did better on the verbal part the first time, and better on the math the second time, the sum of the first verbal and the second math would be the superscored total.) Upon reflection, I could see the institutional logic: if only higher-scoring students submit scores, then their average SAT score goes up without even trying. As TG noted later, that offers a proxy for family wealth, too. As she also noted in a vaguely conspiratorial tone, “My SATs suggest we have a lot more money than we actually do.” Again, I couldn’t argue.

It also suggests a difference between “test optional” and “test neutral.” If admission is a positional good, then a benefit to one applicant is, by definition, a detriment to another. That hasn’t found its way into the larger conversation yet, but it should.

The students on the panel were quite good. When someone asked about study abroad, several of them rolled their eyes and mentioned that the topic was a sore spot; COVID had grounded them during their junior years. But they were otherwise both positive and credible, and the tour guide was terrific. This institution was a bit of a dark horse, but it made a good showing.

I was struck at many of the issues that never came up. Nobody asked about preferences for legacies, athletes or the well connected. That may have been a function of the intended audience. TG doesn’t fall into any of those categories, and there’s nothing she can do about that. Transfers only came up at the fourth institution, and only in passing. In offering diversity statistics, each school treated international students as a distinct race, which hadn’t occurred to me. Graduation rates went unmentioned. I don’t recall anyone talking about tutoring. No tour guides fell over backward, so that’s good.

TG was very good at keeping an even keel, which I like to think is a family trait. Four colleges in two days is a lot to take in, but she maintained her poise and interest throughout. She has already seen two of the others on her list, so that leaves three. Her list is a blend of public and private, large and small; generally, she wants strong English and history departments either in, or near, cities. I maintain that any school would be lucky to have her.

I also maintain that any community college could do wonders with the instructional budgets available at places like these. I won’t go as far as the bright-pink trash can, but some basic parity would be welcome.

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