And On Your Left is the Chemistry Lab

PETER A. JAY

September 26, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace -- For high school seniors, visits to colleges have become an American ritual, and for high school seniors' parents who tag along, these visits can be unexpectedly rewarding. Herewith some notes from a number of recent campus tours.

First of all, parents, or at least those parents doing such tours for the first time, tend to be astounded to find themselves there. They remember very well that it was only a few years ago that they were in college, and even fewer when their oldest child was -- a child.

Now here they are in company with a large and not entirely familiar person who in about a year expects to be a college freshman, and who before that time is going to have to make some important and difficult decisions. The parents can help, but only up to a point. So the entire college-selection process presses all kinds of emotional buttons.

There is touch of panic. Will she get in? If he does get in, will it be the right place for him? It might be too big, or too small; too hard, or not hard enough. Maybe we should be looking at Tiny Tech or Megabux University instead. But there is also likely to be a little spike of nostalgia, and a sense of pride as well.

At many colleges, it seems to be standard practice to offer potential applicants and their families two basic get-acquainted exercises, the group session and the campus walking tour. The first, which both promotes the school and addresses questions, is typically conducted by someone from the admissions office. The second is more likely to be led by an undergraduate.

Some parents I know who have been through all this say that after enough group sessions and campus tours, the distinctions among the colleges begin to blur, and even the applicants and their parents begin to look the same. But after several visits to different institutions this summer and fall I can't say I've found that to be true. On the contrary, the visits served their ostensible purpose, which is to bring the schools into sharper focus.

It's a fact, though, that the impressions visitors take away with them are likely to be strongly influenced by small things. At this early stage of the college-picking process, a cheerful admissions-office secretary with plenty of change for the parking meters outside is worth at least as much as a boastful reference to all the Nobel laureates on the faculty.

Fashions in political correctness were much on display at the schools we visited, but generally in small, inoffensive and even endearing ways.

For example, at one group session an undergraduate, female, was making an elaborate and articulate point about contacts between faculty members and students. She made several generic references to the role of a professor, explaining that "he" was available to do this or that. This drew a roll of the eyes from the assistant dean of admissions, also female, in charge of the session, and thereafter the undergraduate carefully referred to professors as "he or she" or "they."

At all the schools we visited, gender seemed much on the mind of the representatives -- most of them female -- who greeted us. Typical was the enthusiastic description by one young assistant dean of admissions of one of the many women-only facilities her university maintains.

"It's nice to have a place, a support network, where only women's issues are addressed," she declared, moments after proudly explaining how some venerable all-male campus organizations had lost all university support because they didn't admit women. Ah, well -- but on the other hand she did use the term "coed" frequently and without embarrassment. I had thought it proscribed these days.

P.C. or not, the undergraduates we met were a likable group. One of my favorite undergraduate guides gave us an especially self-assured tour of her campus, noting in passing that "that church was built in 1932 in memory of those who died in World War II." But hey, no big deal. I don't think she was majoring in history.

The more elite the institutions we visited, the more concerned they appeared to be that they not be thought of as schools for the rich. And, up to a point, they make a good case. There is a lot of financial assistance available, and a majority of students receive some. Many students also hold part-time jobs.

At the same time, however, in many college communities the overwhelming impression is one of amazing affluence. Students may indeed be poor, but somebody is keeping the fancy clothing stores, exotic restaurants and gourmet food shops in business. Could it be the impoverished professoriat?

Some of the affluence, both off campus and on, may be fairly precarious. There are a lot of colleges out there, and in many cases not enough qualified applicants to fill them. The shortage threatens the existence of some institutions, and has created a buyer's market for students.

That's theoretical stuff, though, and probably not much comfort to worried high school seniors from the Class of '94. They won't relax until the acceptances come in next spring -- and their parents won't relax for at least four more years.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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