The art of college admissions is a unique combination of perspiration, science, and mystery. Months – sometimes years – of cultivation, college fairs, and counselor visits prepare a road that includes tens of thousands of dollars of publications, web development, prospect lists, and client data collection. Seemingly endless hours of communication in every imaginable form seek to build that connection that will result in one more student being added to the next freshman class. With attractive academic programs in place and a reasonable possibility that a financial package can be arranged, the critical day has arrived with two primary questions remaining in the student’s mind – Will I be happy here? and Do I feel at home?
I know you can picture it. Passing through the local neighborhood, the car pulls up to the campus gate. Sitting in the back seat gazing past her parents’ heads, she looks out the windows in all directions. Thoughts race through her mind while her senses are flooded with impressions. She almost hears the guard’s words as he indifferently points down the road in the direction of a few industrial signs. Dad drives on and Mom turns and asks, ”˜Well, what do you think?’ Her only response ”“ ”˜Can we go now?’ The visit is over.
This is not a unique or unusual story. A number of years ago, I personally drove a thousand miles from Chicago to Connecticut, only to have my daughter merely look out the car window and say those memorable words ”“ ”˜Cancel the appointment. I’m not going here.’ That moment left me with a vivid and permanent sense of the psychological and aesthetic fragility of the college admissions process. And I must confess, my immediate response was perhaps a bit un-fatherly.
Everything that comes before a prospective student’s visit to campus is mere prologue and can be reduced to irrelevance in 10 minutes or less. Huge investments of money and human resources are not able to answer the questions Will I be happy here? and Do I feel at home? the way the first 10 minutes on campus inevitably will. These first impressions of campus and community cannot be easily undone by slick websites and publications or a counselor’s promise of happiness.
Will I be happy here?
This question is actually a very rich and deeply human question. Already believing that the college has the desired academic program and that it is likely affordable, the prospect of happiness is determined by the possibility of friendships and camaraderie – not being alone in laughter and tears ”“ and maybe even meeting someone very special. The four-year college experience embraces all aspects of being human, as does the richest meaning of happiness. The prospective student’s first human encounters, as well as those that will follow on tours and in classrooms and residence halls, will be the stuff that will determine the answer to the question of happiness. Each will be judged by its sincerity and its authenticity. Conclusions will be drawn rapidly and will be very difficult to reverse.
Do I feel at home?
This question is initially an aesthetic question. While this may involve a conscious awareness of the surrounding environment, for many it is not conscious at all. It is haptic. It is a physical and aesthetic awareness that comes through the pores and permeates our self as we ”˜feel’ the three-dimensionality of place. Quite often a person can’t even give an adequate explanation for why he or she doesn’t feel comfortable or doesn’t feel at home. They just don’t. Thus the response ”“ Can we go now? ”“ and nothing more. While all this may appear very irrational to parents, particularly after a drive of a thousand miles, it makes perfect sense to the student who knows the place just isn’t right. Here is where we see the importance of a college being able to stand in the shoes of prospective students and their families. We must constantly ask ourselves what they are seeing and feeling, from both the perspective of a young adult and a parent.
Every college and university president should regularly walk the path of prospective students and their parents. Put the board room, the faculty meeting, the donor call, the yield or retention numbers out of your mind, and open your eyes to all that you pass through daily, without seeing. See and feel the surroundings. See what is working and what isn’t.
Is the paint on the curbs flaking off? Are trash cans where they don’t belong? Are they empty? Are sidewalks broken and are the edges of walks, gardens, and lawns clean and tended to? Is signage clear and fresh or faded and industrial? As you are thinking of the next great project, are the small inexpensive elements of the campus being forgotten? What is happening with the voids between buildings, the pass-through areas, the inexpensive opportunities?
Ask yourself, What is getting in the way of the beauty and the genius of our campus ”“ physical and human? Then remove it. For though you may not see it ”“ your prospective students and their parents will.
As a president, in all these matters your community will follow your lead. They are constantly asking themselves what you are thinking and what you want. Don’t hesitate to make it very clear and widely understood, I want the first the 10 minutes on our campus to be magic.