Making the Most of a College Visit
Jeannine Athens-Virtue of Porter, Ind., wants to accompany her 17-year-old son, Jordan, on college tours so she can check out her investment, one that will amount to tens of thousands of tuition dollars. As the mother of four teenage boys, ages 13 to 19, Athens-Virtue is also not naïve. She knows there are opportunities for teenagers to drink alcohol while visiting fraternities in addition to the obligatory trips to the college library, computer lab and dining hall. "It's not a matter of if they could drink," she says. "They probably are going to be seeking it out, because most teenagers look at colleges like, 'This is a cool party.'"
Fortunately, there are steps parents can take to make sure teens get information and fun – all while playing it safe – during college visits.
According to a survey by Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and Liberty Mutual Group, boys are two to three times more likely than girls to participate in drinking, sex and drugs during overnight college visits. The study reveals more than a quarter of teens surveyed had sex or drank alcohol. More than 20 percent used drugs.
Athens-Virtue finds there are advantages, besides peace of mind, to having a responsible adult accompany a teenager on college tours. "My sister went to Purdue, so she is going to take him down to Purdue," Athens-Virtue says. "I went to IU, so I will be taking him there. We are trying to hook him up with people who know the colleges and who know their way around so it's a little less intimidating for him. That takes care of the chaperone issue as well."
Athens-Virtue is scheduling college visits around sporting events so Jordan, who wants to study graphic design, gets a taste of college life. "I want to go when school is in session for him to be able to see the kids and hang out," she says. "He is very familiar with IU because he has been to a soccer camp. He has a stepbrother who goes there, so he knows where the dorms are and some of the pizza places around that area."
Robert Rummerfield, director of College Visits Inc. in Charleston, S.C., agrees it is important to visit colleges while schools are in session. Some teenagers wind up visiting empty college campuses during the summer months simply because it's more convenient for their parents. Rummerfield, who was the assistant director of admissions at Johns Hopkins University prior to starting his own company, offers college-bound students a firsthand look at colleges and universities throughout the United States. "Sometimes if it is during the academic year, they may have some free time to be able to sit in on a class," he says. "They have a little time to go and explore on their own."
Rummerfield points out that with his company's services, high school students, who are always chaperoned, stay in hotels, although occasionally they will stay in residence halls. Students often visit 10 to 12 different colleges on the tour, such as urban, rural, private, public, small and large schools. The hectic schedule leaves little time for drinking and partying, which is not tolerated. A group of 20 to 30 teenagers may start a tour on a Saturday night and finish the following Friday.
"They sign an agreement – as well as their parents – before they go on the tour," he says. "Once we start on the tour we go over all the ground rules as well. We recognize that sometimes you have a bad apple that can ruin it for other people. We do room checks and curfews, because their safety is the most important thing. We are constantly on the lookout to make sure that they are not doing something foolish or something stupid. If the case arises, then they are gone – there are no questions, and they are sent home."
During the college visit, teenagers participate in information sessions with admissions officers and also get to have lunch at different college campuses and dinner in the neighboring communities. "We get them on the campuses so they see it with their own eyes," Rummerfield says. "They are not relying on information that is passed over from their friends or relatives or other people."
On Your Own
Whether you plan to go with your son or daughter on a college tour, it's important to make sure they are prepared. Kim Sandlin, assistant director of admissions at Wichita State University, says prospective college students hear admissions presentations, tour the campus and meet with academic advisers. Students have the option of spending the night. They may stay in guest housing at the university or an area hotel.
Sandlin recommends that parents and teens wear comfortable shoes. Walking tours can last up to an hour, so it is important to be comfortable. Other areas of preparation include dressing appropriately for the weather and coming with questions. "Have the students prepare a few questions," Sandlin says. "Admissions folks have heard every question under the sun, so don't be afraid to ask the questions you want to know the answers to. Definitely ask them because that's why we are here. We are here to help them get their questions answered and make a smart decision."
Sandlin says students can get a good idea of the academic offerings during college visits. They can also get a feel for the social side of college when they attend special events geared for teens at the university. "We do have special programs like senior days, junior days, sophomore days, that are a lot more social," she says. "There are a lot of students coming to those events, so they have a more social feel. Although those programs also do have academic components with them, the students get a much better idea of campus life and student life if they come to one of those."
Since choosing a college or university is a shared decision between parents and children, Sandlin encourages parents to talk to their children. When it comes to preventing teenagers from drinking, taking drugs or having sex, communication is key. Researchers with SADD found teenagers who talk with and have a close relationship with their parents are less likely to use drugs, have sex or drink.