It is a nasty day, full of every type of precipitation possible: freezing rain. Sleet. Snow pellets. Snow. Rain. And back around again. It’s a good day to not travel anywhere–in fact, our schools have already called an early release the night before.
Still, we get up and look hard at the weather between here and Boston. It’s “Accepted Students’ Day”–and it’s coming up on deadlines.
The day is well organized, and student volunteers eagerly make sure that we are shuffled between speakers, parent panels, student forums, major-specific speeches and overviews without getting lost. The chief of campus police reassures all of us parents, making it clear that although our child would be in a downtown environment, they are prepared to keep them all safe. The academic counselors explain their systems to make sure no one falls through the cracks in their class work. The students happily answer questions from their potential new classmates, making it clear that they are happy with their decision to attend this particular school.
Even the food is generous and appealing, the tables decorated with live flowers as a special touch that doesn’t go unnoticed by a lot of the parents.
Most importantly, the head of the department is engaging, informative–and convincing. There is no doubt that, if we invest in this college and this major, our child will leave with great prospects for a well-paying job. He acknowledges the costs of an education, and he doesn’t shy away from the monetary side that every parent in the room is thinking about. All of us, of course, want to know the bottom line: if we invest in these four years for our child, will it pay off?
I begin to refer to this option as the “ROI School”, the “return on investment”. I admit to my son that this appeals to me. Why should someone go into debt if they are never going to be able to pay it back with the salaries that they will make utilizing this education? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. At the same time, I don’t know that I like how they will allow him only two electives in four years. It doesn’t seem to give him the opportunity to explore; it seems very constrictive. I make these observations quietly, sparingly, but not disparagingly.
Two days later, we are off to Rhode Island for our second “Accepted Students’ Day”. This time, at least we are not fighting the weather.
Again, the campus is well organized: parking is ample, shuttle buses whiz us effortlessly about. We’re greeted with “Welcome Class of 2021!” painted on the windows to the main hall, and I stop to take a photo (much to my son’s dismay). The university claims to be ranked in the top 5% nationally for their food service, and they welcome us with breakfast, snacks, lunch and special cupcakes. I can’t help thinking that it makes sense for these days to be particularly well done: they stand to gain–or lose-a lot of money from the decisions all of us make.
The provost and the president both speak to the potential incoming class of 2021. I expect them to “sell” us on why we should all opt for their institution. Instead, both of them take a different approach.
They talk about making a decision with your heart–and your mind. “As you walk around today, ask yourself if this feels right? Do these other people seem like people you’d like to get to know? Are you comfortable here? Are you excited by what you hear about your major and what you’re going to study?”
They address the elephant in the room squarely: why is American higher education so expensive? Why do foreigners spend literally millions of dollars to come to our colleges and universities? Why are we still the envy of the world in this area? What is a “liberal arts education”–and what does that mean in today’s economy?
They explain that their idea of an education is not just the transfer of ideas. “We do not believe our job here is to open up someone’s brain and pour in facts and figures to be regurgitated out,” they say. “We want you to be able to think, to reason, to question, to explore the world, to be engaged in the world.”
When they finish, I text a friend, “Sold!” But then I follow up with an admission that I’m not sure my son is. And I keep my opinions to myself, determined that he will be fine in either of these schools, and that this decision must be his alone to make.
Again, the day is well done, and we leave with no questions unanswered. We still have one more visit we’ve scheduled… and there is still nearly a month before the deposit must be sent in.