Academic speed dating

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Twelve years ago, I sat down at this keyboard and wrote a column about the day Tom and I took our son to his first day of Kindergarten. And here I am back at the same keyboard typing up a report on an entirely different first – that former Kindergartner’s first college visit.

Judging by what I’ve heard and read, visiting colleges during your junior year of high school is a little like academic speed dating. You spend a couple of hours on each college campus sizing it up and asking questions. Then you decide if you can envision yourself spending four years with that college. Not only is this process new for our 17-year-old son, it’s new for us, too.

luggage-2708829_640 (2)When Tom and I went to college, college visits weren’t the “must-do” experience they’ve become today. My college decision was simple. Out-of-state tuition was financially impossible, so I went to the best in-state school that offered the best scholarship package. I didn’t even lay eyes on the campus itself until the day I showed up with suitcases, ready to move into the dorm.

But things have changed, and today’s teens do things differently. Not only is it much more competitive to get into a college, there are also more than 5,000 different colleges in the United States. Choosing one feels overwhelming. So, for our maiden voyage into the world of college visits, I focused on the “three P’s” – place, people, price tag.

When we arrived on the campus of a small liberal arts college in Memphis, we immediately gave it high marks in the “place” category. Nestled into the heart of the city, the campus feels like its own little world full of gorgeous Gothic architecture, a bell tower piercing up into the sky, and lush green courtyards around every corner. The dining hall looked like a scene straight out of a Harry Potter movie, with students lining long dark tables surrounded by soaring stained glass windows.

The buildings with classrooms and state-of-the-art laboratories were impressive, too. But Tom and I were surprised to see that dorms look and smell the same way they did two decades ago when we were undergrads. Dorm rooms are still bare-bones boxes connected by a narrow hallway and a community bathroom. And they still smell like a combination of sweaty gym shorts mixed with a lemon disinfectant that isn’t quite winning the scent war.

We’d assumed that, by now, colleges would have converted over to sleek dorm rooms that look more like iPhones and come with a voice-activated assistant who wakes you up for class and reminds you to call home for money. But our son seemed to like the stripped-down rooms, probably because they come with zero parents included. We agreed it’s probably best that kids not get too comfy in dorm rooms anyway since it might make them linger too long in school. The quest for a private bathroom is enough to make most people finish up degree requirements and move on.

As we sized up the second of the three P’s – people – we noticed that everyone we met on campus was friendly and helpful. That’s a huge factor for a mama bird contemplating the thought of her baby bird setting up a new nest, minus a parent’s protective wing. And the professors seemed devoted to preparing said baby birds for successful flight into the working world.

As for the final “P” – the price tag – college tuition is nearly as scary as having hundreds of miles between me and my kid. All the colleges we’ve researched come with a hefty price. One report by the College Board shows that the cost for a year of college has risen by more than 200 percent at public universities over the past 30 years.

But it’s too soon to panic. Thankfully, our kid has worked hard to get good grades and test scores, so perhaps a scholarship is in his future. We can only hope. Until then, we’ll continue to speed date colleges and be grateful we have another year before the baby bird takes flight for higher education.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. You can read more of Gwen’s work by clicking here to visit The Rockwood Files.

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