The season of submitting applications to colleges and awaiting their decisions has come to an end in my house. But I'm not talking about the job market.
We now face a nerve-racking month of figuring out which college my oldest daughter will attend. I should be more precise: She is deciding where she wants to go, and my wife and I are deciding whether we can afford it. She has been offered excellent scholarships and financial-aid packages by some institutions that are further down the pecking order. But, as is typical, the package was less generous from her dream university. I'm spending a lot of late evenings with my calculator and financial statements, assessing the impact of each choice on our household budget—and weighing the implications for her four younger siblings.
I have found the process equal parts dread-inducing (on the financial front) and fascinating (on all other fronts). My daughter has always pushed herself academically, and I am pleased to see how her effort has translated into exciting opportunities. I was happy in college, and I am hopeful, like any parent, that she will find happiness there as well.
Most fascinating has been the view of our profession from the other side—seeing it from the perspective of a parent, peeking into offices and buildings as an outsider, rather than strolling across my familiar quad and offering friendly smiles to visiting families.
In total we took seven or eight campus tours, all at colleges and universities in the Northeast, including Ivy League institutions and small liberal-arts colleges. We will be making our last couple of visits this month, as my daughter seems to be narrowing down her choices to two viable finalists. We have also attended multiple information sessions on various campuses, reviewed more brochures and pamphlets than I can count, and she has done two overnight visits.
What has struck me most forcefully throughout the process has been the almost total absence of dialogue—from tour guides, admissions representatives, or promotional literature—about what most people see as the main functions of college: teaching and learning.
During one of our recent conversations about her prospects, I asked my daughter whether she could remember a single one of her tour guides describing in any detail a really amazing course they had taken, or a powerful "eureka" moment orchestrated by a teacher, or any other experience related to their learning in their courses.
"Nope," she said.
"So what did you take away from those tours?" I asked.
She shrugged and rolled her eyes. (She's smart, but she's 17.)
"I don't know. More like a general sense of what the campus was like."
I knew she had attended two classes on one of her overnight visits. Surely the prestigious liberal-arts college she visited must have funneled her into some showcase course where she would experience the power of the college classroom. I asked her what those classes were like.
"The teacher showed a PowerPoint and then we talked about it," she replied.
"Did it strike you as any different from what you do every day in your high-school classes?"
I want to be careful here to avoid hasty generalizations, and not to apply my own limited experience to every college and university in America. Still, we were touring some top institutions in our region, and I can attest that our experiences in that respect were remarkably consistent from campus to campus.
We learned all we could ever want to know about living quarters, dining-hall food, exercise facilities, campus social life, clubs and activities, libraries, special programs and opportunities, and financial aid. We learned next to nothing about what made each campus unique or distinctive in terms of the daily learning experiences my daughter would have there, or about outstanding teachers or teaching practices on campus.
I understand why that's the case. Like any parent of a prospective student at a residential college, we are preparing for our child to live on her own for the first time. What shape will that new life take? I want to be able to envision my daughter in her new room, and gain a sense of what her peers will be like, and know that she will have access to food and facilities that will allow her to lead a healthy lifestyle.
But I also know that students spend many hours each week sitting in classrooms like my own, or doing work that arises from those classrooms, and that most of us see the primary function of colleges and universities as offering the best possible educational experience. Shouldn't we give prospective students a clear picture of that feature of their future lives, and see if we can use that picture to entice them to join us because they are as excited about their learning as they are about their dorm rooms?
It's not like we would have to start from scratch in describing the work of teaching and learning. We talk about it on our campuses with each other; we hold professional conversations about it in forums like this one; and we spend endless amounts of time and resources assessing it and preparing those assessments for administrators and accrediting bodies. Surely we can find ways to invite parents and prospective students into those conversations, or start new ones.
I want to offer a modest proposal, drawing on one of the most fundamental lessons I teach to students in my creative-nonfiction course. New writers in this tricky, hybrid genre typically compose essays filled with reflections, explanations, and generalities. They like to jump directly into their theme statement, and then find as many ways as possible to say it over and over again.
Experienced writers know that we are story-listening animals, as well as story-telling animals, and that the best essays find ways to ground abstract meditations in detail, scene, and narrative. For the first half of the semester I am constantly reminding students to take their profound reflections about life and ground them in the world.
So likewise, crowing banalities about excellence in teaching and learning to prospective students probably won't get us very far. Generalized statements about the small student-faculty ratio are unlikely to stick in a prospective student's mind as much as would a specific story about a professor whose devotion to teaching made a real impact on someone's life.
I suspect that most students get their first real sense of a college campus from their tour guides, so my modest proposal would start with them. At the beginning of the year, a faculty member or academic administrator could work with the student tour guides on articulating the three most powerfully charged learning experiences those students have had on the campus. Have them write the experiences down, and practice narrating their stories. Help the guides understand what made those experiences so powerful, and how those learning experiences were—or were not—connected to the good work of an educator on the campus. Then ask the tour guides to stop at three different points on the tour and tell those three stories.
Real, heartfelt stories about learning would inspire prospective students far more than another brochure touting "caring professors."
This approach could have a ripple effect, inspiring the tour guides to think more deeply about their own learning, which could, in turn, inspire their friends and peers to do the same. It could also end up providing a rich set of materials for the institution to draw upon in promotional materials, as well as helping identify faculty and staff members who are making the biggest difference in the lives of students.
I offer this proposal less as a blueprint than as an effort to start a conversation (I invite readers to offer their own proposals in the comments below), and to encourage institutions to consider whether, in the public profile we present to our tuition-payers, we need to pay more attention to the most fundamental work we do on the campus.
Touring another campus as both a parent and a faculty member, I know where to train my eyes in order to get a sense of the teaching and learning environment there. Most parents will not have that insider knowledge, and could use our help in gaining a clear picture of what their sons and daughters will experience in the classroom. We should be doing a better job of giving them that help.