I recently completed the final leg of the doomed to disappointment college tour with my son, wherein ambitious parents and striving adolescents trudge, like weary pilgrims, through one historic campus after the other, feigning interest in spires, dining rooms that are supposed to evoke memories of Harry Potter, lecture theaters, libraries, dorm rooms and the same tedious anecdotes about college life.
At every information session, excerpts from the College’s web page are read aloud with varying degrees of enthusiasm and humor. On occasion a parent or child will break the monotony by asking a question to which the answer can be found on the web site. When the answer is not to be found in the College’s promotional material, the question will be deflected. For example, is it better to get a B in an AP class than an A in a regular class? Better to get an A in an AP class, is the response.
So, why burn money and time on this uniquely American ritual? Many a college coach, counselor, college prep guide book recommend it. They may differ on whether one should do it before applying or after one has been accepted. In either case, I know of no good explanation for why this is a sensible activity.
Some argue that it is a form of costly signaling that will help one’s child should they be on the cusp of admission. This explanation only makes sense for those who tour before applying and apply to colleges that keep track of those who visit. A number of highly selective institutions do not keep track of visits. Princeton, in fact specifically says that whether one visits or not is irrelevant for their admission decisions.
For those who tour after the admission decision, it makes even less sense. What can one possibly learn from one visit to a campus that would allow one to distinguish it from another? The responses to a campus are sensitive to the personality of the tour guide, the weather, the others on the tour and so on. When the impression one gets is subject to so much noise, why is this informative? It is not as if one gets to run the counter-factual to verify the correctness of the choice. The really important factors that determine college experience, large vs. small, liberal arts vs. university, urban vs. rural are all known before the visit.