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College Prep: Preparing for the college visit

Brian UnderwoodFor the Nevada Appeal

You spent hours dreaming over it, researching it, and, finally, setting foot into it.

Like it was yesterday, you remember the color, the way it smelled, and, particularly, how it made you feel. And at that moment, in the blink of an eye, you knew.

After performing the necessary due diligence and enduring all the advice you could stand, you couldn’t have been prouder as you drove that first car of yours off the lot.

You had the same sensation when you opened the door and crossed the threshold bought your first home. That is, of course, until your first mortgage payment arrived. But up to that point, you were dancing on air. You had achieved the American Dream.

Ah, the pride of ownership, which is exactly what the college planning process is all about for young people – owning the process. And there is nothing more crucial when planning for college than test driving schools.

This is particularly true when one considers the lifetime value of the college education.

According to a 2010 study performed by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (www.clasp.org), students who earn a bachelor’s degree average approximately $3.8 million in lifetime earnings.

This is juxtaposed to data from the same study that reveals those with an associate’s degree earn a lifetime average of $2.2 million, and those with a high school degree average approximately $1.7 million in lifetime earnings.

Clearly, the delta in one’s earning potential based on educational attainment is significant. This reinforces all the more why diligent research and then visiting a calculated number of colleges and universities is so important.

And so it is because of this level of urgency, coupled with the fact that this decision represents one of the first noteworthy choices a young adult gets to make, that anxiety can cause tension between students and parents.

In short, students want to be independent, and parents want to “help.”

But in order to make the planning process, and especially visits, more effective – to say nothing of more enjoyable, both students and parents need to establish some give and take on issues.

“Early in the college visit process, parents and guardians should be expected to take on a role that is more of an adviser than director,” says Tim Desch, assistant dean of undergraduate admissions for the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, in an interview with US News & World Report.

“I think parents assume a certain role, and that is to guide and educate their (child), but, oftentimes, that kind of accelerates them into being a little too intrusive,” Desch acknowledges. “The role for a parent is to be encouraging.”

To help empower students in the process, parents should consider partnering with their college-bound student to arrange the trip(s).

After discussing which schools to see, parents might contemplate allowing their student to take the lead in setting up school visits. Have the student be the one to interface with the admissions office.

Most schools will have what’s called either a Preview Day or Welcome Weekend when they roll out the red carpet and put their best foot forward for potential students.

Events like these certainly have merit; however, they don’t necessarily allow a visitor to see the campus as it would ordinarily be on a day-to-day basis. For a more organic campus visit, mull over visiting at a non-descript time.

Pre-arranged visitation days by a college or university are also typically hosted during the best weather. And if you’re considering a school in an area where students experience severe weather for long periods of time, perhaps a trip during the heart of the worst weather is in order.

Absent any available research that speaks to the best fit for a student, prospects and their families may also decide to see a potpourri of schools to evaluate pros and cons of different types, sizes, etc.

“Try (to) see a large public research university, a small selective liberal arts college, a technical college, and a religious college,” Mary Conger, founder of the campus visit service Collegocity notes. “Doing this provides wider exposure to what’s out there.”

Conger goes on to encourage students on college visits to go beyond the standard campus visit, which can sometimes become a one-way conversation and a public relations push by the school.

One of the most important things a student can do on a college visit is ask questions – of all individuals they encounter.

Though it may fall outside their comfort zone, encouraging college-bound students to engage current college students about their experiences is critical. Doing so will provide the prospective student worthwhile information, keeping in mind that the more people approached, the more reliable the cross section of information becomes.

Finally, whether a student is visiting one school or a dozen schools, it is advisable to keep a journal of the experience. Annotating visits allows the college-bound student an important resource when later sifting through the wealth of information on each school.

Sit back and enjoy the ride.

• Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School. He can be reached at underwood@slhs.com.