A Bad Tour

Yesterday, Jonah and I drove an hour and a half to our state’s public college. The Arts and Science branch of the college doesn’t run tours in August, so we went on the tour of environmental science college within the school. It was all very confusing. The college has 31 sub-schools, each with its own bureaucracy and requirements spread over miles and miles of campus. It’s possible to major in biology in two or three sub-schools within the college. Why? I don’t know. Seems like a bureaucratic mess to me.

Actually, the whole school looked like a trainwreck to me. Reading between the lines of the tour, it was clear that students have very little contact with professors and that advisors weren’t really available to the students. The campus was ugly. Way ugly. It felt like the low budget city university that I used to teach at.

This school has the highest in-state tuition of any state college in the country. Where the hell is the money going? This is why you see Jersey kids at every other state college in the country. Shameful.

Jonah walked through the college horror stuck. While he didn’t pick up the cues about the problems with the faculty and administration, he got an eyeful of the exposed fluorescent lights in the dorms, the ripped carpets, and the bumbling dean who gave the tour.

He whispered, “I’m not going here.”

“Dude, you might not have a choice. You have to apply and then we’ll make decisions after we see acceptances and scholarships. Your grades are good, but you know that you could have done better. You need to apply here as a safety.”

“Why didn’t you tell me???!!!”

Um. What? He blamed me for not yelling at him enough to get straight A’s. Like this was some state secret that I was keeping from him. Teenage boys really need another year in high school to mature before we set them loose at college.

31 thoughts on “A Bad Tour

  1. An argument for touring earlier? The problem I see is the unrealistic expectations. A friend told us that the food at Yale was wonderful (while we were eating the food I considered inedible at a state university campus in the south). It was supposed to incentivize his 10year old kiddo. But who knows?

    We are fortunate that although issues with bureaucracy, faculty contact and organization might be rampant at our flagship state U (I don’t know, not having been a student there), a lot of the campus is gorgeous. I remember being 17 and how big a role the physical plant of the campus played in my decision making.


    1. “An argument for touring earlier?”


      “The problem I see is the unrealistic expectations. A friend told us that the food at Yale was wonderful (while we were eating the food I considered inedible at a state university campus in the south). It was supposed to incentivize his 10year old kiddo. But who knows?”

      Kids might be incentivized to avoid bad food…


  2. I’ve been following these tours with great interest. I teach at a community college in St Louis, and I was wondering why you’ve not mentioned visiting your local CC–where one does usually have a lot of contact with faculty, smaller classes, equal or better (in my experience at four other colleges and a CC) student services, particularly for those with disabilities, and lower costs. Do they fit into you or your son’s plans at all? We find our college a hard sell for upper middle class (white) parents in our part of the county, though some high school counselors steer their better students our way because of lower cost; our courses also transfer usually fairly easily (lots of adverbs there) to the state public colleges.


    1. Is it really that hard to figure why you can’t sell a community college to upper middle class families? That’s the level where socialization is seen as being as important as credentialing.


      1. We know why it’s a hard sell–no need to explore that–it’s changing a bit because of Missouri’s A+ program, where HS graduates can attend a CC tuition-free for two years if they meet a fairly straightforward set of requirements. More middle-class parents feel the squeeze and see us as financially appealing. But you don’t see many cars with St Louis CC stickers in the window–


      2. It seems to me you could sell the community college better in states where it’s easier to transfer credit. At least in Georgia, where the entire 42-hour core curriculum transfers (generally – you can’t do a “liberal arts” option in the math and science core and then go into engineering, of course, but our calculus III works just the same as Georgia Tech’s calculus III), nobody would ever know you started out at Perimeter College or Gordon State for 1-2 years if you transfer to UGA or Georgia Tech and complete a bachelor’s there unless they looked at your transcripts, especially if you didn’t collect an associate’s degree on the way.


    2. A shout-out to the local CC: Our daughter (going into 11th grade) has taken some science classes at our local community college and has absolutely loved it. She’s connected with amazing and smart professors, and will be enrolled in a bio-tech 1 day/week program there this year. It’s changed her entire view on college (evolved from “I want to go to a super-expensive elite college that is halfway across the country” to “Hmmm, maybe I’ll stick close to home for a year or two and get everything I can out of this amazing resource in my own backyard”)

      But when we mention it to neighbors, they look at us like we are nuts. There is still a mentality of “go to the very best/most elite school you can get into” – I think the bragging rights for what school your kid goes to is still strong in the white/upper-middle-class world.

      For what she wants to do, she’ll most likely need a PhD, so we are telling her to take the long-view on school. Where she starts doesn’t matter nearly as much as where she ends. The community college professors she’s working with now are connecting her with internships, leaders in the field, and other great programs that will be incredibly valuable as she progresses. Because of them, her first real job won’t be at the movie theater (like mine was) – her first job will be a paid biotech internship this fall.

      Socialization is great – but I think we’ll be seeing a shift as people look to college to help explore jobs/careers/employment. And community colleges do that very well.


      1. My boyfriend failed out of high school (well, they gave him a pity diploma from the reform school where is parents sent him after he failed out of public high school), and then went to his local CC. He failed out of there and then at 20 got his life together. He went back, got his AA, and then transferred into one of the more competitive UC schools with one of the best national programs in his major (he was in CA). When he decided he wanted a PhD, he got into the top PhD program in his field a few years after graduating.


      2. Those are good stories. I think some kids (some parents have known it all along) are getting that college isn’t a goal but an opportunity. And, depending on what opportunities one is looking for there might be a lot of different ways to acquire them. I see too many kids (some parents, too, and that’s particularly dreadful) still thinking of college as the prize in a contest or game rather than a place where you do things.

        Mind you, a lot of elite schools have a lot of fabulous opportunities (some of which are the opportunity to meet other people, with tremendous talent and ability, and, yes, connections). But those opportunities can be found in lots of places.


  3. I’ll have to write a proper rebuttal piece at some point, but not before the end of my vacation next week. I know dozens, if not hundreds, of graduates of this institution, and I’d easily put it in the same class as the University of Virginia and University of Michigan in terms of the opportunities for its undergraduates. My graduate degree is also from this school (and my undergraduate degree is from one of the two schools I named), so I know what I am talking about.

    But my thesis, which I hope to getting around to supporting in greater detail, is this: if you go to this school, have a reasonable focus about what you want to study when you start, and work hard, you will have very good post-graduate opportunities. By which I mean: Ivy League law schools (if that is what you want); solid science-based PHD programs (if you go the science route); decent entry into the business world (no, not a hedge fund, but a job at a real company doing whatever real companies do these days). Graduates of this institution’s law school (many of whom received their undergraduate degrees from it as well) are among the top political leaders and legal practitioners in the state, if not the nation. (Elizabeth Warren is both a graduate of the law school and a former professor there.)

    The main reason NJ kids go out of state is because there are not enough seats at its state colleges, not because its state colleges are inferior. (Perhaps an equally significant reason is that kids typically want to be more than a couple of hours from home, which rules out most NJ schools for most students of NJ.)

    That’s it for now. I hope to do a more elaborate piece later that addresses things like the 31 sub schools, the quality of the physical plant, and degree of professor contact. There’s legitimate debates to be had about many of these issues. But this is never the kind of school where they are going to construct a lazy river for its students. Instead, it’s the type of school where faculty groups periodically file lawsuits to eliminate the football team. And if I somehow got the identity of this school wrong (unlikely, but possible), then I apologize for the rant.


    1. I hope you do have the time to reply, ML. I’m curious.

      Look, we just came back from looking at 5 other state colleges, Comparing apples to apples. And what I saw was craziness. Overlapping departments. Hundreds of buildings, some haven’t been maintained well. The student tour guides couldn’t answer basic questions about the school, because it was too big for them to really get a handle on things.

      To get tenure at this school, you need 14 articles in 7 years. I can’t imagine that there’s too much time left in the day to get to know the students.


  4. I did ask Jonah if he would have worked harder, if we did these tours last year. He said no, and admitted he wasn’t ready to think about all that yet. He has some nice SAT numbers, four years of running and a respectable GPA. He’ll be okay, but he would have even more options, if he hadn’t farted around.

    NJ’s in-state tuition is equivilent to the out-of-state tuition in NY, so we’ll apply to a bunch of the SUNYs.


    1. “he wasn’t ready to think about all that yet”

      Gah, I hear you on this. We literally stopped at a college town in western Mass last summer and begged our daughter to check it out and she refused. (Problem with raising kids to question authority is that they question yours, too. 😦

      Our new problem is that we have absolutely no time to take her to visit colleges in the fall, when there are students around. She doesn’t have time either.


  5. Are you guys considering any of the smaller private schools? One of the advantages of being in the northeast is that, unlike my region, there’s plenty to choose from. With tuition discounting they might well get in the ballpark of what State Flagship costs, and Jonah probably would get a lot more attention from faculty not trying to pump out 2 peer-reviewed hits a year and an administration not trying to keep up with the rest of the Big Ten.


    1. Yeah, we would have to go a little down the selectivity food chain in order to get some money to make a private school affordable. I’m not sure that I want to do that, but I have some on the list and we’ll check them out next.


  6. I know a bit of ML’s view by knowing people who work at the university and know that it has a strong reputation in some subfields (I know of psychology). But, I think this is one of the things about a large public university — big differences across the university in experiences (the university is many universities). So the challenge is finding the part of the university that you think would be yours and exploring it (both in space and program and people).

    And then, access is an issue. I was recently hearing about the competitiveness of admission to our flagship, and only recently realized that people were talking about admission to the competitive programs (for example, CS, which has a direct admit program — meaning you are accepted directly from high school, that is very competitive because it is trying to attract students who would otherwise go to even more elite schools).


  7. The smaller privates in our neck of the woods definitely engage in selective discounting of tuition to bring the cost down to the cost of in-state tuition, using things like “leadership scholarships” which are available to students in the top 25% of their population (in grades, SATs, etc). They give those “leadership” scholarships to athletes, too, as a means of discounting for athletes though they are not giving athletic scholarships like the D1s.


  8. “He’ll be okay, but he would have even more options, if he hadn’t farted around.”

    Don’t know whether that’s true, in your individual case. But, I’m in an environment where the kids put enormous pressure on themselves to “have options” and constantly get preached about “enjoying the journey” and not just the destination. Being focused on the destinatination might improve the probability that you’ll get there, but, the question is at what cost. A lot of kids sometimes think that being just a little bit better (the A instead of the A- in the class, or honors physics instead of regular physics, or that one extra activity) is going to do the trick of having more options. But, in many cases it’s much bigger steps, than that, not the A in honors calculus, but the 1st in the math olympiad that makes the difference.

    (but, I don’t know the specifics of scholarships, which change these calculations some).


  9. A tale of two state colleges: http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~wcd/Peitho.html

    “Still, statistical analysis tells only part of the story. Let me mention one last statistic. It’s this: in New Jersey, which has one of the most talented applicant pools in the United States, over 70% of the top students coming out of high school go out of state to college. Of the 30% who remain, Princeton and the College of New Jersey take a disproportionately high percentage.”

    In my opinion, you should tour Rutgers again, once the Arts and Sciences branch gets its act together. The chemistry between different sorts of students should not be underestimated. Was the tour guide the sort of kid he might hang out with? Teenagers can overlook lots of iffy residential space if they like the people. Many of the top flight private universities we visited did not include dorm rooms on the tour. They did go out of their way to find engaging tour guides. hmmm.

    On the other hand, if the Arts and Sciences branch does not see the need to give tours in August, that is telling. They are able to recruit the student body they desire without putting effort into “selling” their campus to comparison shopping families.

    I would never, though, tell a student “you must go to this college” if they really hate it. Life is too short. No high school senior _must_ go to college immediately after high school. There are many ways to self-sabotage, and even more to resent parents. It’s better to just lay out the options, and let them choose between affordable offers. One option is to work for a year or more before applying to college.


  10. My NT kids is ~4 years ahead of yours, and I have two words for you: Gap. Year.

    Let me say it again: Gap year. Or two.

    Seriously. Most 18 year old males need at minimum an extra year of frontal lobe development before they are anything but a total waste in college. You think that immaturity in high school kept him from his best work? Wait until the same lag shows up in college work, despite engaged professors, small classes and a stunning campus. (or maybe that’s just my kid, who will be taking a belated gap semester or more if I can convince him, when he actually should be graduating)

    Meanwhile, my spectrum kid is completely engaged at the ugliest college in MA and on the Dean’s list most semesters. Holding him back two years helped a lot.


    1. Ugliest college in MA? He must be attending where I teach. ;). Seriously though, the schools a tier or two below the flagship are worth a look. More likely to be a big fish in a small pond. Plus, our research expectations are lower so we have more time for teaching and students. And many “directionals” are really looking for students.


    1. Google ugliest campuses. We’re on pretty much EVERY list – not just the MA lists. Lucky us! IMO – we’re a pretty good institution in that we’re very student centered, but most kids who come to campus can’t get over the ugliness. After a while, you get used to it – I guess you just have to learn to embrace it – but I can understand why an 18 year old would say – thanks, but no thanks.


  11. I was the A++ student in HS with 40 million extra curricular activities who was actively recruited by Harvard, and I did all this because I kind of hated my mother* and figured the only way out was a full ride at an elite institution. People always asked my mother how she got such driven and successful children, and the answer was make them all kind of hate you enough they will do whatever it takes to get as far away as possible. If I could go back and have a completely different life, I’d rather have been psychologically healthy and happy in HS and have been an A- student instead, and I don’t think it would make a huge difference in how successful I would have been as an adult.

    *Combo of standard teenage mother/daughter drama and legitimate ways in which my mother was a kind of terrible mother. Also just difficult life stuff that was hard on my mother and us, and it manifested in different ways.


  12. I’ve been reading this series with a lot of interest and had a few questions. I know y’all went to state universities around New England to compare apples to apples. Does Jonah have area(s) of interest for college that align with each of these institutions? Or is he in the the difficult “undecided” position which makes narrowing choices down a bit more difficult?

    Also, have the visits helped determine what type of college Jonah is interested in attending: big city/suburban/rural, research v. teaching based, large population v. more intimate environment, etc? How many LACs (if any) do you think you might get a chance to tour? Or are LACs basically out of the equation since there are so many great public options available relatively close to your home?

    We are just at the very beginning of our oldest’s college search (starting high school this fall, so we’ve undergone the initial pick the classes/track oldest will be on during the high school years) and reading along your experience has been illuminating as a parent.


    1. I’ll get back to you, sasha, on many of these questions in a separate post in a day or two. Some of my answers may piss off people. I’m going to have to finesse my answers.


  13. NJ’s flagship was the eastern university that spouse came up with when I asked whether there were any east-coast university that’s thought of being a out of state draw (for something other than sports).

    It occurred to me that part of the fracturing you describe (31 sub schools, . . .) is the result of a mix of national class programs being mixed with not-so-good programs. One sees that at big state colleges, because the great places worry about their brand (but also real concerns, like sharing resources, students, admissions, . . .) being dragged down


  14. It may just be that he doesn’t like the “siloed” effect common to many large universities. I know my kids did not like the effects of siloing. They expected to like the universities we visited, but gravitated to the universities and colleges which did not require students to apply to a program from high school. For example, at the University of Pennsylvania, students apply to the College of Arts and Sciences, Wharton, Nursing, or Engineering. For my math & science guy (who enjoyed engineering-themed courses in high school), that was too siloed.

    As to different biology majors in different schools, a high school teacher, a nutritionist, a doctor and a medical researcher may need different topics covered in different depth.


  15. My gut reaction, if he doesn’t like it, he shouldn’t go there.
    Just based on the two vastly different schools my kids chose (USC — for the one who could navigate a big school on her own, and Ursinus — for the one who wanted small campus, div III sports, lots of personalized contact). (Lots of kids from New Jersey at Ursinus!).
    And gap year — she was ready for college, he needed the extra year.
    And scholarships — merit money made these schools competitive with the local state schools.


  16. “Where the Hell is the money going?” My alma mater (Berkeley) and its sister school UC Davis, and the statewide administration for the UCs, have all had nasty tawdry money scandals recently – nepotism and noshow jobs and perks for administrators. As has, if memory serves, the NJ College of Medicine and Dentistry (?). To the dismay of those of us who have thought of the academic world as somehow pristine. I don’t know why Rutgers would be exempt.
    I am just back from dropping Kid #1 at James Madison yestday. Hell of a lot of Jersey plates on cars going up and down Hwy 81.


  17. Just wanted to add…

    The pursuit of tippy-top grades & resumes for college admissions usually involves the rest of the family. I have seen entire families arrange themselves to rotate around a star child. It’s fine, it’s their choice–but it leaves little energy, resources, or time for other pursuits.

    I have been (with a touch of envy) following your blog’s “adventures with Jo and E.” I think your children gained immensely by exploring with you. Your family chose a different path. I happen to believe that you and they will be happier and more productive through your adventures than you would have been had he attempted to structure his youth around the pursuit of catching the eyes of admissions people.


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