College tour has its price: $11.42

November 16, 2008|By kevin cowherd | kevin cowherd,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

This fall, my wife and I are busy trying to find the right college for our youngest son, the high school senior, who does not seem quite as engaged in the process as we are.

Like his older brother and sister before him, the boy has been helping us with this college search by stating that he's not sure where he wants to go to college and not sure what he wants to study.

This has helped narrow the search to about 10,000 colleges, which means by the time we get through checking them all out, the boy will be 60 years old and we will be, well, dead.

Nevertheless, we have visited quite a few colleges so far. The boy wants to play basketball in college, so when he's asked which school he likes best, he tends to name the one with the best athletic facilities, signaling that we are not exactly on the summa cum laude track here.

But I can tell you which college I like best: whichever one has the cheapest price tag.

I say that because due to the current economic meltdown and resulting stock market fluctuations, the college fund we have for the boy is now worth about $11.42.

So we're pretty much hoping we can find a first-rate school that charges five bucks for tuition and four bucks for room and board, leaving the remaining $2.42 for textbooks.

Each college visit starts with an information session, during which school officials tell you their school is the greatest place in the world for your kid, a place where he or she can learn and thrive and go on to be anything in life, even the president of the United States - providing the kid goes on to Harvard Law and can raise $640 million in campaign funds.

This spiel is often followed by a short slide show about college life that features the usual smiling, attractive young people lounging on the steps of the library, or peering earnestly through safety eyewear at foaming beakers in the chemistry lab, or happily engaged in a spirited game of flag football or field hockey.

Then comes my favorite part, the Q-and-A session, during which representatives of the college field questions from pushy Type A parents that go something like this: "My son has a GPA of 4.375, is all-state in cello and lacrosse and plans to be an astronaut. Tell me how he would fit in here."

Apparently these parents think the college reps will be so bowled over by this that they'll say: "Wow, let's go right over to the admissions office! Would a full four-year scholarship for your kid be OK?"

After the information session is over, it's time to tour the campus with the requisite chirpy, overcaffeinated student guide, who professes his or her undying love for the school and has perfected the ability to walk backward and talk at the same time.

These student guides tend not to be slackers and will soon let drop that they're majoring in microbiology and molecular genetics, plan to graduate a year ahead of time and then go on to med school and a life dedicated to wiping out world hunger and infectious diseases.

Meanwhile your kid would major in Madden video games if they offered such a thing.

So the meandering tour of the campus begins.

Your group visits the library, the student center, the science buildings, the new technology center, with the parents straining to hear every word out of the student guide's mouth and their kids shuffling behind in a bored, yawning death-march.

At some point, you'll visit a room in one of the student dorms, which has been swept of the usual mounds of dirty clothes, beer cans and offensive posters.

Computer screens are locked onto university study sites, books are lined neatly on top of desks, and the bathroom, a filthy, moldy, germ-ridden hellhole just days earlier, has been scrubbed with high-pressure hoses and powerful disinfectants until it gleams.

"This is a typical student's room," the tour guide will say with a straight face, while all the parents nod and think: Sure. If the typical student is a monk.

The big highlight on these tours often seems to be the dining halls, big, glitzy, tiled palaces that offer everything from high-end gourmet fare to fast food.

When I went to college, we ate our meals in a dingy cafeteria, where sullen kitchen workers dished out lumpy, starchy foods of undetermined origin.

Or you could opt for the dry, tasteless burgers and fries that had been sitting under the warming lights for days.

Now you can get anything you want in these dining halls.

You can get seafood, Thai food, Mexican food, Szechwan food, prime cuts of steak, organic ice cream, along with the usual Subway, Burger King, Roy Rogers, etc.

If I went to college now, I'd weigh 400 pounds. Because I would never leave the dining halls.

Or if I did go to class, I'd bring along a huge plate of Kung Pao chicken and be too busy sucking it down to take notes.

When the tour finally ends, you head back to your cars laden with brochures that make the school look like a Sandals resort.

Except sending the kid to a Sandals resort would be a hell of a lot cheaper.

Not that we're worried about it, with $11.42 in that fund.

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