Is It Really Time to Ditch the Campus Tour?

We all remember that one piece of advice every single one of us received in our college prep course: hit the road and tour as many colleges as you can. One of our parents in tow, we packed up the car and spent weekends crossing the country on the “grand college tour.” But times have changed. Technology is more advanced and social media is something schools never considered 15 years ago. Are college tours still the only way to see and connect with a campus, or are they now just a waste of time?

Was all that time trudging through private schools and state colleges in the torrential rain and sweltering heat worth it? Erica Reischer of The New York Times doesn’t think so and stirred up a fervent debate in April when she published a piece urging prospective students and schools alike to “skip the college tour.” The piece is long and highly contested, so we figured we would break it down and take a closer look at Reischer’s argument.

Only the Highlights

Visiting a school, Reischer explains, is not the same as being a student there. And she has a valid point. When you’re touring a school, you’re getting only the highlights.

School building

Think of travel shows. In any given episode of Rick Steves Europe, you’re touring Paris’s or Rome’s most popular attractions in a span of 25 minutes. But there’s more to these cities than the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. You would never pack up and move there after 25 minutes of a television tour. After all, what do you know about their economies or their job opportunities? However, after a single, thirty-minute visit to a college campus with a glossy guidebook of its own, we feel compelled to choose where to call the next four years home.  

On a college tour, you’re getting the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. You’re getting the best food and visiting the cleanest dorms. You’re seeing maybe three or four students (usually paid admissions assistants) or meeting a few professors in empty lecture halls. You’re getting snippets of the “college experience” and leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps.

Employing Experience Surrogates

Students are more likely to find themselves unhappy because nothing measures up to their imagination. This is why so many college students don’t return for their sophomore year (about 1 in 3).

To prevent this dive in retention rates, Reischer suggests, seeking out someone who already made the college decision and has already felt its effects by employing the input of “experience surrogates,” or current college students and young alumni.

Student walking on campusWe know how impactful referrals from a peer can be. After all, we’re a society composed of social media stars who can impact a young person’s decision with something as trivial as a Tweet. Look at the catastrophe that was Fyre. Based solely on Instagram pictures posted by a member of the Kardashian family, young college students made the decision to spend thousands of dollars (Probably money they could have put toward college!) and venture to a “luxury” island for a music festival. When they got there, there was an island, but not much else. It was a far cry from the filtered promotions on Instagram, but if Kendall Jenner once again promoted another music festival, probably just as many people would sign up to go without a second thought.

Roughly 83% of consumers say they are more likely to purchase something based on a recommendation from a friend or family member. Likewise, college students are more likely to be influenced by someone they see as a peer than by anyone or anything else, including a college tour. Shouldn’t colleges try to make the most of this?

The Power of Empathy Over Imagination

What are classes really like? Where are the best places to study on campus? How helpful is the career center? What are some work-study opportunities? Are there any classes to avoid? Any professors not to miss? These are just some of the questions an experience surrogate could answer that a tour couldn’t.

When prospective students hear these answers themselves, they no longer need their imagination to fill in the gaps. They can see themselves in these very real situations. They use empathy to inform their college decision, not imagination, and whether their like-minded peers are happy or unhappy will ultimately influence the decision they make.

Students walkingExperience surrogates are not a hard group of people to find. For example, ReachBright, marketing automation for higher ed, tracks the sentiment of prospects, current students, and alumni. Schools can use the software to draw comparisons between the different groups, see what they’re interested in, measure whether they’re at risk, and more. Find contacts that share commonalities and put them in touch with each other. Use highly engaged students as surrogates. Use at-risk students as warnings. If a prospect has more in common with an at-risk student, your school is probably not where they will be most happy. All of this ReachBright can do for much less than it costs a school to actually run a tour.

Upgrading the Campus Tour

In many ways, Reischer has a pretty substantial argument. On their own, college tours aren’t the most useful. However, they shouldn’t be ditched completely. If colleges can employ experience surrogates, made simpler with software like ReachBright, and filter down who will and who won’t succeed at their school early on, college tours may actually become more helpful. Based on the information they learned from experience surrogates, prospects who feel they are a good fit will check out the tour. Those who don’t will stay away and schools will be left with a group of students who will really be happy on campus, without having to imagine it.