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Lawn Boy: the College Years

Not the Harvard Commencement Ceremony

Not the Harvard Commencement Ceremony

We’re on the road, my son Crawford and I.  It’s time to visit colleges, and our schedule is brutal.  Hot car, blinding sun, 12 colleges in 10 days, Ann Arbor to Sewanee. Onward we drive, Zevon on the stereo, afternoon into night, our mission fueled by gas-station coffee and Doritos. When we stop, it is for college admissions tours, barbecue, and, on one occasion, a broken alternator belt. I don’t even like to think about how far we have traveled.

The trip has revealed aspects of university life previously unfamiliar to me.  Based on our extensive research, I am prepared to summarize the primary objective of the American university in two words: Lawn Care.  Never have I seen such careful attention to landscaping.  The clipped shimmer of the grass at these American universities would put Augusta National to shame.  Equally impressive are the campus golf carts, each one piloted by a middle-aged groundskeeper wearing a baseball cap.  Our prize for Most Outstanding Golf Cart:  Swarthmore College, where we spotted a Shriner-sized vehicle that resembled a miniature, air-conditioned RV.

Another revelation: The procedure American colleges have designed to court prospective students is identical, no matter how different the colleges themselves.  (Is there an instructional manual somewhere?) First there is an “informational session,” conducted by an admissions officer.  This is followed by an hour-long campus tour, which is led by a student with a talent for walking backwards.  During these sessions all the prospective students will be asked to tell the group their names, where they live, and what subject they plan to major in.  (“Hitler Studies,” Crawford keeps threatening to say, but he wisely decides to keep that to himself.  Sincerity, we have learned, is the watchword of the college admissions officer.)

On the campus tour, we are always shown a dorm room and a dining hall.  We are always taken to a library and told how many volumes it contains.  We are informed how many students study abroad (a lot), how many student clubs there are (ditto), and how small the classes are (very small.)  We are told about the exciting new environmental-studies major and the many opportunities for undergraduate research.  A striking number of student tour guides seem to have been instructed to inform all visitors about the marvels of the interlibrary loan system.  Another running theme is the location of the post office. According to our tour guides, professors at every university, no matter how large the campus, are spectacularly friendly and often invite students to their houses for dinner.  Some professors routinely offer to wash students’ cars and do their laundry.

I will admit that these tours offer access to two things that we cannot get on the Internet: conversation with an actual student, and a feel for the physical layout of the campus.  The same can’t be said for the informational sessions, which are almost uniformly deadly.  (I say “almost” because of one exception: an admissions officer at University of North Carolina, who, despite the fact that he appeared to be about 19 years old, managed to be so funny, smart and self-deprecating that he should probably consider conducting summer instructional sessions for his colleagues at other institutions. Sort of like Roy Williams’s basketball camp, only for college admissions officers.)  My tolerance for these informational sessions is markedly lower than Crawford’s — not because he finds them useful, but because he is more accustomed to listening for hours to adults in authority using a lot of words to say nothing.  “This is my life,” he tells me.  “This is high school.”

There is one thing missing from these sessions. Twelve colleges and we have not met a single faculty member.  Is this intentional, I wonder?  Do the admissions officers steer prospective students away from the professors, fearful that we will undermine the sales pitch and drive students away?  At Haverford I spot an elderly man who looks suspiciously familiar: bushy beard, wire-rim glasses, tweed jacket.  He even has a cane.  Too perfect, I decide.  He’s probably just an actor.

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