What won’t be said on campus tours

With a brief text message from my daughter, Annie, at 8:33 p.m. Tuesday, my days of following sophomores walking backward officially came to an end.

She’d chosen a college and put down a deposit online.

And so ended the phase of life for us that began eight years ago when her older brother first began touring campuses, collecting brochures and performing the elaborate courtship dance with academic institutions that, for many families in our situation, had to conclude prior to Friday’s decision deadline at many schools.

We became connoisseurs of collegiate marketing – savvy critics of the backward-walking student guides, the peppy orientation administrators and the overall “you belong here!” effort that often begins with bulk-mail come-ons and ends with a series of calls and messages from schools that have detected at least a whiff of requited interest.

I like to illustrate the sameness with which many colleges and universities make their pitch by giving the spiel you'll never hear on any tour:

“We have very little sense of community here, particularly if you’re not part of the suffocating Greek system that you must join to have any social life whatsoever. Our professors are very busy and will seldom have time for you. The few student clubs we have are either pointless, inactive or riven by rancorous schisms. The administration actively discourages those who want to start new organizations.

“Our rec center and dorm common areas are grimy and dilapidated vectors for disease, and disgust for the limited cafeteria offerings is virtually the only sentiment that unites the otherwise dispirited student body. Our campus is located close to boring, sketchy neighborhoods with depressing business districts.

“Our philosophy is that a well-rounded student is probably wasting a lot of time, and we’d render that into a Latin saying if we felt foreign languages were important, which we don’t.

“If you want to study abroad, maybe you ought to apply to a school abroad, you snob. And if you want to design your own major, well, who do you think you are, John Stinkin' Dewey? Our placement office specializes in offering platitudes and advice gleaned from self-help books. We really have no idea what our graduates go on to do as most of them quickly sever all ties with us.”

You get the idea. And one reason we went on numerous tours with all three kids – Annie was the last to decide, accepting an offer shortly after her twin brother, Ben – was to expose them repeatedly to the sales techniques so they wouldn’t be easily swayed.

The first time you hear that a university is truly committed to its undergraduates you are impressed. The 10th time you wonder if they do protest too much.

Another reason we went on many tours was to keep them asking “Who am I, and where do I belong?” These are the fundamental questions of adolescence, but they’re easy to avoid day to day as a student navigates all that is high school.

Walking through quads, sitting in on classes and eating in campus dining halls gently forces the issue. Tours provoke a consideration of the future in a way that no counseling session or parental lecture can.

Do my dreams, whatever they are, live here? What about here?

But a third reason for our dozens of odysseys over the years was less purposeful: They were fun.

Fun to spend lots of time with the kids that felt neither forced nor frivolous.

Fun to take a series of little vacations with them, often one-on-one due to family scheduling conflicts, and to prepare, via many grown-up conversations, for the relationship we will have going forward.

And fun for my wife and me to remember what it was like to have so much that is so unknown lying just over the horizon.

Last week, Ben decided on Davis & Elkins, a small liberal arts college in West Virginia where he'll be a member of the Appalachian Ensemble string band. And this week, after narrowing her choices to two and agonizing appropriately, Annie decided to study architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

This marked not just the end of the college-tour era for us but also the last major decision in their lives in which we'll play a major part. The letting go has truly begun.

Wow, I think, remembering clearly the days when I was able to hold them both, one in the crook of each arm. Wow. That was fast.

Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.