Monday, August 19, 2013

Nice work if you can get it: the college tour

     Eight colleges: Princeton, Yale, Brown, Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Dartmouth, Columbia. Visited, one after another, boom-boom-boom, during a two-week, 2800-mile trek to the East Coast. Probably not the typical American summer vacation. Not exactly Disney World. But we are odd ducks, we Steinbergs. We liked it.
      We went to kick the tires of prospective schools for the oldest boy, the 17-year-old incoming senior — a “rising senior” I’ve learned to say, just one of many details of the academic world gleaned on the trip, from the proper pronunciation of Amherst — “Amerst,” no “h,” who knew? — to the fact that Middlebury has its own private ski slope, to the full name of Columbia University, “Columbia University in the City of New York,” which made me reflect on the economic, almost beautiful concision of “University of Chicago.” 
Nassau Hall -- Princeton
      The older lad picked the colleges. His brother, 16, gamely tagged along. My wife plotted the itinerary and found good hotels. My input, other than genes in the mid-1990s and resisting the urge to constantly quote Robert Browning’s line “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” was to insist there be some pure vacation stuff tucked in as well, between the tours, lest we go mad. Thus three days in a mountain cabin in Vermont, plus a couple days at the seashore in Massachusetts. I also drove most of the way.
     Prospective student tours are a big deal to colleges. Tens of thousands of potential customers beating a path to your place of business, begging to be impressed, fighting for the chance to give you money. It's an opportunity to be seized upon, even though only a fraction of the visitors — a handful in a hundred — will end up attending.
    As a guy in the communications biz, I was interested in how the schools met this challenge, how they presented themselves. Some were first rate. Some did a surprisingly cack-handed job of it. We attended an information session and a tour at each of the eight — tag team affairs where an official from the admissions office would talk up the school, or try to, then a student would lead a tour, though sometimes students were warm-up acts for the official, or even joined in the discussion.
      Princeton has the loveliest campus — sedate, beautiful, historic. Just strolling around lures you into the dream of luxury, of perfection. “I wish there were some animals, such as peacocks,” my older son actually said, as if he were landscaping Heaven. The town of Princeton adjacent to campus has the feel of an old money resort. The jeweler where I went at lunchtime to get a battery for my watch waved away my offer of payment, perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of the charmed notion that I might return and buy a Patek Philippe or — my suspicion — perhaps because they do not traffic in trifles.
      The Princeton info session took place in a vast science lecture hall, with a vaulted ceiling and old wooden desks, a complex, two story blackboard with giant, mysterious antique gauges above it, as if Michael Faraday had just stepped away for a beaker of benzene. The session, run by an assistant dean of admissions, was brisk, polished and without a false note.
     Afterward, our guide, Christine, a confident Californian sophomore, reminded me how out-of-touch with youth culture I have become. None of the bands or celebrities she mentioned attempting to impress us sparked even the faintest flicker of recognition with me — they could have been made up. It all sounded like, We had concerts by Woodburning Set, Dingus and the Feathered Friends last year. Plus Peter Piper filmed his last movie, "Delirium Tremens" here. That happened at nearly every tour. 
     The Princeton campus is wired for wi-fi, of course, and one has to wonder how much the traditional academic trimmings are mere backdrop. In praising the library, our guide said, “I like to touch 19th century books because they’re cool.” And here she paused, musing. “I don’t do anything, I just touch them and move on with my life.” No one hissed.
Sterling Library -- Yale 
    If Princeton felt somehow delicate and colonial, Yale had a more solid, medieval cathedral feel, even though those Gothic edifices usually turned out to be dorm bell towers and dining halls. The younger boy and I ducked out of the info session to explore New Haven’s city cemetery, where we found the graves of Glen Miller and Charles Goodyear. We returned for the tour. Our spunky North Carolina guide kept being interrupted by gas mowers and heavy machinery — lots of summer landscaping and construction at these cash-washed universities.
    Then we went to Brown. “Is this the college? No!” my older son said, aghast, after we parked at the periphery of campus, something of a hodgepodge after Princeton and Yale. Sitting, waiting for the information session to begin, I pointed to a brochure calling Brown “a microcosm of architectural styles.” The bright spin. “PR 101,” I told my wife. “Try to turn your flaw into an attribute.”
      The Brown admissions official — I should shield her name, lest I inadvertently add to the ranks of the unemployed — began her talk by introducing herself with these words: “I love cloudy weather, rainy days and my favorite animal is the baby penguin.” I wish I could say she was being ironic, but she wasn’t. After Princeton and Yale’s sharp presentations, it was like stepping from a fancy restaurant to a child’s lemonade stand. Helping her not at all was a student who spoke so fast he could hardly articulate words. “Like an auctioneer,” I jotted in my notebook and showed my wife, who nodded grimly. “Eighty percent of Brown students go to graduate school,” the official said. “The other 20 percent become admissions officers.” That wasn’t quite: “Don’t get a degree from Brown because it’s practically worthless.” But it sure came close. (Note to proud Brown alumni: don't blame me for telling you. I'm not saying the school isn't a fine one — it may very well be. Just that the presenters didn't manage to convey it, at least not to us). 
    In fact, the duo did such a thorough job of undermining any interest in Brown we might have had that, when their effort came to an end, we all stood up, looked at each other and mutually agreed to skip the tour and just hurry to Amherst. At the last moment, my oldest son said, “Well, we’re here already,” and we reversed course and joined a tour. We were glad we did, because the guide, an enthusiastic young man from Mexico City (“Daniel, like the girl’s name,” he said, pronouncing it “Danielle”) did much to repair the battered reputation of the school, earnestly explaining how he had found his home at Brown. He radiated energy, though didn’t keep Brown from sinking to the bottom of the list and staying there.
     We made it to Amherst late, though in time for most of their last session of the day, guided —practically passed hand-over-hand — to the proper place by helpful students. Arriving at an intense disquisition in a spare, white meeting room, flanked by balconies, I felt like we had barged in a 1650 Pilgrim chapel. I kept wishing this serious conversation could be projected on a split screen to the assembled Brown community, alongside their own clownish performance, as penance.  “We have the resources to support your creative and intellectual endeavors,” the Amherst official said.
     Amherst is nestled in mountains. Our Amherst guide took great pride in walking backwards, and swung mightily for the home team. "Liberal arts does not mean unemployed," she said. She was also the only guide to stress a school's anti-substance abuse policy, including substance-free dorms (all dorms are theoretically drug free, but the designated substance-free dorms really mean it, apparently). 
     Alas, like many guides, she didn't have the whole talking-to-people thing down, and used the word "actually" in every other sentence, as an intensifier. "There's a reason why we love our alumni," she said. "Roughly 50 percent of all our alumni are actually active. Regardless of whether or not you are formally on financial aid, your education is actually subsidized by $20,000. That's because of our large endowment here. We are actually going to see their presence through our alumni database. When it comes to our alumni, we actually have their information on a data base...."
    The word became like a ball peen hammer tapping on the base of my skull, but my family afterward said they didn’t notice it, so maybe it was just me.
     Williams offered perhaps the most impressive spiel, the admissions officer — a canny vet, a few weeks from retirement — who asked students to identify themselves and talk about the reasons they are interested in Williams, then seamlessly wove their expectations into a presentation that covered all aspects of the school. At Williams, you could clearly see the tension between the parents’ interest — that their kids' expensive education would lead to a career of sorts, eventually — and the undergraduate imperative for fun. Williams has a system where you can hop off the study treadmill to pursue personal passions, and the examples given were: stone masonry, cheese-making, exploring surfer culture and a jaunt to Burgundy to learn winemaking, which I’m sure was loads of fun. Why you need a pricey college to master cheese making is another question.
    Of the eight schools, Dartmouth was the only one I had visited previously — Rolling Stone sent me there 20 years ago to do a story about a new way students communicated with one another, using a computerized message system called email, which became so popular some students weren’t even having phones installed in their dorms. I had expected the students to delight in the big shot magazine’s attention, but found them surly, unhappy that Rolling Stone had recently done a profile on the Dartmouth frat that inspired the film “Animal House” and was, apparently, inspiring it still.
    None of this I mentioned, not wanting to affect my son’s search process with decades-old biases. And indeed, the associate director of administrations, Katie Madden, was as far from Dean Wormer as imaginable: easily the best of the eight, smartly explaining Dartmouth as part of a sharp, well-ordered career strategy that —and I’m exaggerating here only slightly — starts with excelling in high school and ends with winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine. She could easily be cast in the next big budget action thriller as the Secretary of Defense, briefing the president about the unfolding crisis with coolness and precision. Rather than any rambling, I-like-clouds digression, she gave an organized talk, explaining the three aspects to Dartmouth she was going to emphasize — “access, flexibility and engagement” Madden was also the only one of the eight to use real student examples, Dartmouth students she named who were patenting medical devices and forming their own companies and teaching African villages to use foot pump nebulizers.
     “The world is their classroom,” she said. “There are no boundaries to the experience you can have.” Those people at Brown, I kept saying to myself, ought to be ashamed.    
    After that, I was ready for my boy to go all out for Dartmouth. Then came the tour. Our guide had lived in London and Tokyo and Singapore and did, generally, an excellent job of pointing out the locations on campus. He also delved into the realm I had been reluctant to mention. “Everybody drinks under age,” he said, explaining that this is a major reason for fraternities, which — and he didn’t use these exact words, but this was the essence of his meaning — beside their continual charitable work, are basically temperance organizations designed to minimize the harm that comes from campus drinking by providing controlled settings for it to occur under the close supervision of responsible individuals. “Our parties serve really diluted beer,” he said, noting that 70 percent of the student body at Dartmouth join a frat or sorority, prompting my boy, who had researched all these schools down to the last detail, to ask his first question of the trip: “Would you comment on Dartmouth’s unofficial mascot being Keggy the Keg?” To which our guide replied, in essence, “umm.” 
     The last school was Columbia, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  As my boy bounded up to the desk to give his name to admissions clerk, I couldn’t help but think of his great-grandfather, Sam Steinberg, painting billboards in the Bronx in the 1920s, in his coveralls and painter’s cap, lugging around his buckets of whitewash. What would he think about his great-grandson even having a shot to go to Columbia? Proud, I hope. I sure was. In fact, I was what my people call verklempt.
     That quickly passed. Before the administrator showed up, Matt, a perky Columbia student — trim, mod eyeglasses, maroon v-neck, perfect pompadour — gave a presentation that was almost a performance piece, like one of the monologues from “A Chorus Line.”  Much of the appeal of Columbia, apparently, involves Hollywood stars joining your 
a capella group and seeing Daniel Radcliffe — whose name I at least recognized — shoot a movie scene on campus.
     Still, he was sprightly and sincere — so sincere I wished his remarks, too, could be recorded and saved. Not to shame Brown, but so Matt, who no doubt will make a fine professional someday, could be shown it in 20 years time, to his certain horror.  Asked his favorite class, he replied “salsa and reggae dancing” and praised a student club called “Feel Good.”
     “They make grilled cheese and then just bring it to you,” he said. And to think Columbia only charges $60,000 a year to attend.
     He was relieved at last by a grown-up, James Minter, the director of international admissions, a robust, mustachioed man in a blue polo who had a calm, steady demeanor that I liked very much. He was like someone from the Army Corps of Engineers sent to explain how Columbia University would build a bridge to your future life. “Argument is what we do here,” he said, detailing the core curriculum of classics, and I looked over at my boy, to whom argument comes as naturally as breath. Minter spoke about himself, but in a sophisticated fashion. He was born in Georgia, he said, and was asked: did not moving to New York City seem a cultural shock?
     “For me, the culture shock was birth,” he said. “Coming to New York was correcting the mistake.” By the time he was done, the audience was leaning forward, breathless, its collective heart pinned on Columbia. Or, again, maybe it was just me.
      Regarding my older boy's impressions, he's a very close-to-the-vest lad. Let's just say, not Brown. Applying to high end colleges is the rare situation in American life where it's unarguably far better to be a rural black child or a Navajo. Bright middle class suburban Jewish kids are a dime a dozen, and need to bring clean drinking water to an African village or figure out something clever in their essays or snag a bit of luck to get themselves snatched from the slurry. We had managed to boost our prominent noses over the cliff's lip and were staring at the Promised Land of upper crust academic success. But whether my hard-working kid could claw his way that last mile, to an actual spot under one of those majestic oaks, is another matter. We didn't dwell on it.
Morgan Library -- New York
     The younger boy is into celebrity food television, so as a reward for his preternatural patience, we let him pick the restaurant in New York to go to after it was all over, and he chose Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster, at 125th and Lenox, where we had a glorious Southern feast, outdoors on a beautiful summer day, watching the lively Harlem streetscape stroll by. Which made me think that Tolstoy was wrong when he said that all happy families are alike. Each happy family is happy in its own idiosyncratic way. At least ours is, happy just to seek, to explore, to learn, to try. A bit of success would be nice, too, but we aren't expecting promises.
     After lunch, while the older boy headed uptown with his mother to huddle with a Columbia neurological researcher and tour her lab, my younger son and I slipped downtown to have some fun, and visit the Morgan Library. That would not be considered fun for every 16-year-old, nor for every dad, but it was thrilling for the both of us, and we spent a long time studying the treasures that old Pierpont Morgan had hoovered up from Europe.  Next year, we will visit the colleges my younger son is interested in, and while he has only mentioned one so far—the University of Glasgow, because it was founded in 1451—I told him that people have gone to colleges for worse reasons, and that we stand poised to hie ourselves to Scotland and check it out, should he so desire.

   So where did he end up going? To find out, click here.

Columbia University 


  1. I did the East Coast tour as a senior. We went at the end of September, so we caught the trees in thir glory.

    I ended up at Stanford, sight unseen. Best decision ever. I highly recommend it!

  2. A fine and interesting report, Neil. I can just imagine that, after 2 weeks, all the miles, hotels and expenses, not to mention the 8 hard-sells for the cream of the crop in the East, "hey, how about Stanford?" is just the suggestion you might be hoping for! ; )

    I hate to be picky, given the price of admission here, but captions for your swell photos would be a nice addition, if not technologically problematic. Just sayin'.

  3. Gosh, I couldn't afford to go on campus tours as a senior, and it sounds like I really missed out. However, like Caren Tarvin above, I got into a fancy West Coast school (sight unseen) anyway and had a great 4 years and got a great education, so maybe it's just as well.

    (I was wait-listed at Williams, also probably just as well.)

  4. I wanted him to consider Stanford, but he nixed California as too far away which is a compliment to us, I suppose.

  5. Replies
    1. You're right -- I think I was sort of burnt out by then. I'll tuck a line in.

  6. I did the campus tour thing...and ended up at Cornell, setting foot on its gorgeous campus for the first time when moving in 25 years ago today.

    As I reflect on where I went and what I did while touring, I increasingly doubt it was a coincidence.

    Caren and nicoleand/ormaggie, congratulations! I never applied to either Stanford or Caltech, but I know they're great places.

    Jakash, I believe the top and bottom photos are Princeton and Columbia, respectively.

    Last but not least, good luck to all concerned!

  7. I think you're a saint, but he should look at UT-Austin, UMich, Cal, UCLA and some other public universities.

  8. Fascinating description, but as a Big 10 grad I'm just sort of amazed that your tour included only east coast private colleges. Are you in a position where cost is no object or do you know something the rest of us don't? I'm probably biased, but my oldest went to Purdue and is now in grad school at Rice, and very happy with his experience at both. I get the idea you'll never get a second chance at a college choice and it never hurts to aim for the stars, but still find the entire exercise somewhat pretentious somehow. Anyway, best of luck and enjoyed the story

  9. @Anonymous -- if you were a regular reader, you'd know there have been other college swings closer to home. The thing that I know that you don't seem to is that colleges give financial aid. I'm not sure where the pretentiousness comes in -- no question the boy is reaching for the stars. If that strikes you as pretentious, well, that's your concern, not mine.

  10. from commiserating dad: Hi Neil, Glad I found you here. Used to hear you once in a while on Steve Dahl, actually got this college story recommended by Janet Dahl. I can relate so much to this. My daughter just started her sophomore year at college in New York this week and my twins started senior year of high school this week. It seems like we've been doing non-stop college tours for over 2 years. But enjoy the ride while you can because it does suck sending them off to school, even the sophomore year is a hard goodbye when they'll be 1,000 miles away. Keep writing every goddamn day!

  11. Ahh. The substance free dorms. We call those the "some pigs are more equal than other pigs" dorms! (since all are supposed to be substance free)!

  12. If you understood these private schools aid vs say U of Michigan you would understand why you would NEVER choose the public schools. Many kids I know are paying 20 to 30 thousand less a year at Yale, Princeton and Columbia than they are at schools like Michigan that have very little money to give.

  13. Ironic since he ended up in a Calif. college after all, as you said later.

  14. Where did your son end up?
    Many years ago went on similar tour with my daughter.We were very turned off by Brown too. ( She ended up at Princeton. I was poor, we had an advantage!)

    1. Pomona. I should tag the coda on the end.


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