The College Admissions Visitor’s Center and Your Touring Experience
There’s a saying that eyes are the windows to a person’s soul. It that’s true then the front lobby and waiting area for the college admissions office is the front door to most campus communities. Visit your friends in their homes and you can tell how they treat their property by how it looks from their front door. The same goes true for colleges.
Over the past two weeks I have seen the most welcoming of spaces in a college admissions office, at Johns Hopkins University, as well as one of the least welcoming spaces at Columbia University. I have posted both, among other college admissions visitors spaces, on a special Pinterest page that I made just for this post. I took some of these pictures, obtained others from other Pinterest pages.
One of my first jobs after I finished graduate school in urban planning was to do market studies for proposed housing developments throughout New Jersey. The numbers will tell you part of the story in trying to assess whether a development will sell. The other part of the story comes when you visit the sales offices of comparable properties. The appearance of the model homes, the friendliness of the staff and the attractiveness and accuracy of the information you receive are all important to a prospective homebuyer. The best home builders never miss a detail.
There are far more colleges than there are major home builders in the U.S. Yet a college has to make a similar impression on a prospective student and their family. You can see that most of the schools pictured on the Pinterest page do a good job of this. Some, like Bard (pictured there), also do a superior job with marketing communications to go along with the ambiance of their lobbies. There’s good reason to make a prospective student and their family feel welcome. They might be spending six figures for the experience later. Just as they would if they were buying a house. Only they will have less time to pay down the debt.
I do not always get to wait in the visitor’s lobby when I have the opportunity to visit a college. Open houses, for instance, do not begin at the admissions office. They usually start at a main campus auditorium or theatre. However, when I’m in the waiting area, I always take a look around. I check to see how and where the brochures are placed and look at displays on the walls and materials on the computers. I want to see if the people who are responsible for admissions are proud enough of the school to show it off. I’ve been blown away by schools such as Washington College in Maryland. I have also been underwhelmed by schools such as the University of California-Berkeley and Columbia University.
When I visited Johns Hopkins I had not signed up for their tour and information. That was not required. Yet I was treated with the same courtesy that I would have likely received had I signed up in advance. The students and staff at the desk acted as if they knew what they had to do to make me informed and leave me happy that I visited. They did not treat me as if I was a burden to them. In fact, this is the space where students wait for admissions interviews. The students are more likely to feel relaxed in a pleasant setting.
Contrast this with Columbia where tours start at a visitors center at Low Library, now the administrative center of the university. You can see that picture on the Pinterest page, too. Here I also came on an unplanned visit. I stopped at the admissions office, where I was told that there might not be a tour that afternoon. The person called, found out that there was a tour going out in a little less than an hour. I asked if he could help to tell me where the visitors center was–and he joked that he would not. He gave me quick directions, not handing me a map. I did not find this obnoxious person very funny. I was quite tempted to complain. But I did not have the time. I wanted to make my tour. Besides I have this Web site as my vehicle to vent.
After I left the admissions office I found the visitor’s center. I told a student at the front desk that I want to take the next tour, and was told to take a seat. I did not know that I needed a visitor’s pass to be on the tour until after the tour started. Luckily, the tour guide agreed to wait until three of us, myself included, had gotten our passes. The student who handed us the passes did not look happy. I didn’t care.
Any college admissions office, students or staff, that is collecting applications should treat a prospective student and their parents like an honored guest. They should also speak to someone in my position like a trusted adult. I do not care if the school is an exceptionally-selective college like Columbia or one where few applicants are turned away.
If you want someone’s money over four years, possibly more, you make them feel welcome and treat them with courtesy and respect. On this score the Columbia students who work the desks in admissions have a lot to learn about courtesy and life. Given what it takes to get into Columbia, it was sad that they did not appear to know those lessons.
Check out Loyola University Maryland when you have an opportunity. They do a great job of incorporating playful branding and a sense of classic prestige.
In fact, the Humanities Building has been used to film “House of Cards.”
I have visited and written about Loyola-Maryland. I thought that the university had a very nice urban campus as well as very bright students.
I had a similar bad experience at Columbia when visiting with my son in 2012. It was a hot day too so that didn’t help. They had one tour guide for about 40 people and the guide had the tiniest voice. The math department (my son was a prospective math major) was nice though and invited my son to come back the next day when undergrad students would be presenting their research in a symposium. He went to the symposium, was turned off by the students, and scratched Columbia off his list of possible schools.
The other Ivy school we visited wasn’t much better. The attitude seemed to be, “Yeah, you’ll apply here anyway so we don’t have to put together a dog and pony show for ya.”
You bring up a very important point: the students hired to conduct tours should be proud to talk about their school and speak about it with enthusiasm. Otherwise, why are they conducting tours to a group of families that might collectively pay over a million dollars in tuition and fees over four years to that school?
Great observations! One of my pet peeves is the failure of admissions offices to arrange for free or reduced-price parking. What an obvious public relations blunder. I won’t name names, but as a visitor to many campuses per year, I can tell you that there are those that make it nearly impossible to park and those that expect visitors to pay large sums of money and have credit cards/exact change for the honor of seeing their campuses.
I suppose it goes along with what you’re saying. Either the organization welcomes your visit or it does not. Nancy
I have also been to schools where I had to pay for parking or found it quite inconvenient to the first stop of an open house or a campus visit. Having been an urban planner I can accept this when parking is very tight on a campus and the school could not possibly make room for more parking in a city location. But I have also seen schools make up for this by marking directions very well or having very helpful people to make you feel less upset about the inconveniences. Penn State, for example, has very remote parking by the football stadium. However, the tour guides who showed my group around were exceptional–they knew how to route us out of the rain the day I was there–and the admissions office also offered lunch (including the university’s famous ice cream) after the tour.