Banning Parents From College Tours

June 16, 2004 | By Jay Mathews

My daughter Katie worked as a tour guide on her college campus this year. She noticed something that, although not terribly surprising, dramatizes a weakness in this standard method of introducing high schoolers to colleges they might want to attend.

She led a total of 12 tours. In all that time she received only one question from a student—not one student question per tour, but one student question in the entire run of 12 tours. Except for that single brave teenager, every other person who raised a hand was, you guessed it, a parent.

I have been asking other tour guides, admissions officers, students and parents about this. They agree that teenagers are often reluctant to speak out when mom and dad are hovering nearby.

“They are intimidated by their parents, and mostly humiliated by some of the parent questions,” said Wylie L. Mitchell, dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

Tommy Leung, a senior who conducts tours at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., said, “When the student is with a parent, I think there’s the worry that perhaps they’ll ask an ‘inappropriate’ question that will reveal something that the student might perceive as embarrassing.”

Joann Tseng, a senior at Blake High School in Kensington, said she thinks one reason she remained silent during campus tours was that she was subconsciously defying her parents, who “constantly nagged me to be more pro-active about my educational future.”

So here is my solution: one tour just for kids and a separate tour for their folks.

Katie says the best campus tour she ever had was the one, just before the deadline for submitting early decision applications, when she told us to stay in the car. My wife and I are, admittedly, exceedingly awful in this regard because we are both journalists and feel we have to ask questions to justify our existence. But, in that instance, we meekly did as we were told. I used the time to conduct important research on which local diner had the best milkshakes. Katie said our absence helped her take charge and ask her own questions, for once.

It seems to me this might work for nearly everybody, particularly if colleges offered a selection of mixed and segregated tours, depending on the tastes of the applicants.

Bates is one of the few colleges that already separates students and parents in this way. Mitchell, the dean of admissions, said he finds parental over-investment in the admissions process painful to watch. On occasion, when a parent says something like “we are so interested in applying to Bates,” Mitchell replies, “Does that mean you also want to be on the mailing list and fill out an application?”

His school’s tour schedule reflects that attitude. Bates admissions officials conclude group information sessions in August, when the crowds are the largest, with the announcement that parents will be touring with one guide and students with another. Mitchell said he thinks this has worked well, although he realizes that when a parent objects to a separate tour, “Bates probably just fell off that parent’s list.”

Margy Arthur, owner of College Campus Tours Inc. in Tahoma, Calif., said she does not know of any other college that gives separate tours for parents and students, but she thinks it is an excellent idea. Since 1984 she has been leading groups of 20 to 40 students on visits to several campuses over a week or so. She makes it clear that parents are not invited.

“I have found that students are much less intimidated and will ask more varied questions when away from their parents,” Arthur said. One mother asked if she could follow the bus in her car, but eventually discarded the idea.

Caroline Friedman, a graduating senior at Annandale High School in Fairfax County and a campus tour veteran, said, “I think students can go into a numb sort of feeling on college visits because they sit through lectures on financial aid and how to pay for college and they hear current students on student panels talk about how great the school is, but rarely do they get to sit down and just talk candidly with a student, free from the eyes and ears of their parents,” she said.

Leung, the tour guide at Harvey Mudd, said he wanted his parents with him when he was a high schooler visiting colleges “because I wanted them to be okay with my coming to a college that they knew very little about…and I wanted to see their reactions during the tour.” But for many families, he said, tours without parents would work well because students would be more apt to ask about issues of concern to them, like the social scene, roommates, parties and dating.

Kent Barnds, dean of admissions and enrollment management at Elizabethtown (Penn.) College, said he and his guides try to focus on students even while most of the questions come from parents. “We train all of our tour guides to first introduce themselves to the prospective student, even if mom or dad gets up to shake hands first,” Barnds said. “We tell our guides to view parents simply as observers.”

Amanda Kupp, an Elizabethtown senior who leads tours, says she gives visiting students her e-mail address so they have a way to ask questions without parents around. Sara Otero, a junior who is also an Elizabethtown guide, said she frames her answers to parental questions in ways that will connect with students.

Otero says parents are often a positive force. When she was applying to college, her mother made her write down a list of questions to ask on tours, and gently prodded her to use it when she seemed overwhelmed. “I pulled out my list and got down to what really mattered to me,” she said.

Larry Brown, parent of a 10th grader in Portland, Ore., said he thinks parent questioners have value. “They can often detect the holes in the narrative provided by the guide or ask questions they perceive as relevant to their family’s situation,” he said. “What is the harm in that?”

Mary Lou Bates, dean of admissions and financial aid at Skidmore College in Saratoga Spring, N.Y., said one student told her it was easier to process the information afterward if her parents were on the same tour. And several admissions officials said they were not sure they could muster enough guides for separate tours.

Some college admissions officers say they offer students-only experiences during the most crucial campus visits, the ones that occur in April after the student has been admitted to several schools and has to decide where to go. Lorne Robinson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College in St. Paul, said that when he schedules separate sessions with current undergraduates for parents and admitted students in April, some families still seem uncomfortable splitting up. Mary Beth Kurilko, assistant director of admissions at Temple University in Philadelphia, said she fears separate tours might even lead to feelings that “we’re keeping something from the parents.”

Both Robinson and Barnds cited authors Neil Howe and William Strauss, who in their 2000 book “Millennials Rising” said many parents and students in this generation like being partners in everything they do. Tom Green, associate vice president for enrollment services at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., said he has noticed that even when there are separate orientation sessions for new freshmen and their parents at the beginning of the school year, “I see parents sneaking into the student sessions to listen in on what their son or daughter is being told.”

Mitchell said parents have become more accustomed to Bates’ students-only tours and often drop their child at the admissions office and return a few hours later. “In our case they can go shopping at L.L. Bean in Freeport,” he said.

“Parents visiting colleges with their second or third child are really much more sane,” he said. “They usually show up with a big novel, read it in the waiting room, act—but probably aren’t—blasé about the visit, and are generally much more helpful to their student.”