It’s spring, the season when parents and their high-schoolers are preparing road trips and spring break flights to college towns for the familiar ritual of the campus tour. Maybe your child is just starting to think about college, or maybe you’re the parent of a senior who has already been admitted to a few. Hopefully you’ve done a little advance research so you know basic facts about the schools such as the number of students, academic specialties, endowment size, housing arrangements, and bottom-line cost. The big question a campus tour should address is: How comfortable do you and your loan co-signatory feel at each school?
You probably already know to ask about things like whether students get the courses they want during registration and whether there are a lot of adjuncts. But there are some other questions you should be asking and details you should keep an eye out for—the hidden indicators that can help you understand what your tour guide doesn’t want to say about campus culture.
1. Before leaving the parking area, gather some data. Find a faculty lot and an administrator lot, which are usually labeled on campus maps. What kinds of cars do you see? Are faculty members driving Bush-era Hyundais and administrators driving Audis? This would be a bad sign. Another clue is whether students park illicitly in these lots (look for out-of-state plates). If they do so flagrantly, it could indicate a culture of privilege (though all college students like to bend the rules to some extent). If not, it shows that campus security is regularly on patrol and maintains campus order.
2. As you cross the quad, you may notice students playing Ultimate Frisbee. Ask them if there is an organized team and if they are competitive. Club sports like Frisbee and rugby are often important social outlets on campus, and their competitive success can indicate strong social subcultures. It can also indicate ample financial support for social activities outside of frats and varsity sports teams.
3. You or your kid will probably sit in on a few classes. Ask if it is possible for students to audit classes and if this is common. By definition, a class you audit is not one you get credit for, so you are only likely to audit if you are genuinely interested in the material. It’s a sign of a strong intellectual community when students regularly seek knowledge without receiving official recognition for their work, and it shows that faculty members encourage this, too. Also find out if you can audit classes without additional fees, which may indicate the administration’s feeling about learning for its own sake.
4. On tours, one thing you will notice and perhaps tire of is the parade of antique buildings with gargoyles, scrollwork, and, likely, no elevators. Are all buildings on campus fully handicapped-accessible? Buildings of more recent vintage built on the cheap or during architectural dark ages like the 1970s may also be inaccessible. Such buildings often have grandfathered exceptions to accessibility laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act that hold practically everywhere else in public life. You can judge a campus’s commitment to diversity and to its most vulnerable members by whether it spends the money to make such buildings accessible without being forced to. Ask specifically about the building where the president works, which may well be a historic landmark. You can tell a lot about a school by the literal accessibility of its corridors of power.
5. Ask if there is a food pantry for students. This indicates that a significant number of students can’t afford to feed themselves but also that someone on campus has recognized the problem and cares enough to organize help. If the food pantry is run exclusively by students, this might mean the administration is ignoring the problem and wishing it would go away. Campus food pantries also serve students who can’t leave campus during breaks and live too far from the grocery store, so it is also an indicator of campus isolation.
6. In the dining halls, observe how students behave with staff members swiping meal cards. Swipers are among the few staff members students see on a regular basis. It is not uncommon for people with disabilities or people from other marginalized groups to serve as swipers. Some are genuinely beloved campus figures with whom students are convivial, or at least cordial. Students can also be aloof or mocking toward them. Pause and watch a few interactions.
7. There are various ways to gauge the faculty’s accessibility and inclusivity. First, you can query any students you meet (other than the tour guide). Ask: How many nonadjunct faculty know you by name? How often do you engage in discussions or debates with faculty who have different opinions from you? Also try walking the halls in a department your kid is interested in during business hours and count how many faculty doors are open.
8. Campus libraries are safe havens. They attract a wide array of students, especially late at night and on weekends. In addition to night owls and procrastinators, there are those with day jobs and those whose living quarters are not conducive to studying. Ask if there are 24-hour libraries or other after-hours study spaces, and whether staff monitor these areas. Schools that accommodate diverse study needs likely value other forms of diversity as well.
9. Finally, ask anyone you meet on campus: Would you send your kid here? You will not necessarily get an honest answer. But you may be able to discern subtle cues in the response. Years ago, I witnessed a parent ask this question to a professor at an admissions event. The question caught him off-guard, and he froze. His mouth said, “Absolutely!” but I’m pretty sure the parent could tell how he really felt.