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College tour impressions: Vassar

September 27th, 2011

The second destination on our college tour was one of just the couple of liberal arts colleges on Becky’s list.

I have a feeling that calling your school a “liberal arts college” these days has to do more with pretense than with a true distinction from a “university”. Yes, engineering is normally not an option to major in, but I know of at least one such college that does offer that “unique” opportunity nowadays (coincidentally, we intend to visit that school as well, even though we could not care less about an engineering degree, no offense to any of my readers holding one). Yes, a graduate school is normally not a division of a liberal arts college, but it obviously makes little difference to a prospective undergrad, even when it is span as “more research opportunities for undergraduates”. Yes, liberal arts colleges are usually smaller and more intimate, but when you talk about a few thousand students, I don’t know if three thousand would feel considerably more intimate than, say, five thousand at an institution calling itself a “university”.

Anyway, with only Ivy League universities as points of reference up to this moment, Vassar did leave a different impression.

The campus is awfully pretty, park-like, enclosing a couple of lakes and streams, with buildings sitting a fair distance away from each other. There is a bit of a jumble of architectural styles, including some later-day designs that I could do without, but overall it is very pleasing.

Some college areas are located in different parts of the surrounding town, but the main campus is an enclosure abutting, rather than integrated with, a picturesque town strip. Poughkeepsie, NY, is a small town, and the feel of the area is fairly rural, although definitely not “in the middle of nowhere”. That impression was helped by the town fair being held on the day of our visit, with a nearby main street closed for vehicular traffic and throngs of people mulling about. The first café that we randomly went in for breakfast did little to dispel that positive impression, too; busy but efficient, good ambiance, good food, a mix of locals and visitors, one of those kinds of eateries that instantly make you feel good about the place you’re in. (And on a completely inconsequential note, the road along the campus leading into the “town centre” has no less than three roundabouts, which for all my erstwhile lamentations about driving in England elicit strangely nostalgic emotions in us nowadays.)

While visual stimulants were overwhelmingly positive, the other components of our visit did ok.

The college offers all of the areas of study that Becky is after, and there is enough of flexibility in program composition to make studies fun (including nearly total absence of required/core studies beyond three freshman requirements, one of which Becky can already easily satisfy without taking any courses – foreign language proficiency). I wish I had such flexibility when I was in college. A smaller school is a smaller school, however, – the number of available classes and majors may sound impressive in the absolute sense, but it loses in comparison with bigger institutions. (It is a bit illogical to say that a 1,000 courses on offer is “lacking” when the degree requires you to select just 35 of them; and yet, given all that flexibility in designing your degree program, somehow the fact that some bigger college offers 2,000 courses makes the lower number seem inadequate…)

Facilities, from what we’ve seen, are satisfactory but hardly outstanding. Given that neither the tour nor the info session, both seriously slanted towards advertisement, focused much on facilities, I conclude that those are not a bragging point for the institution.

Which makes its price tag additionally galling. Vassar costs more than Yale. I have already come to accept the fact that there is no true cost differentiation when it comes to private schools – a couple-of-grand difference above $50K/yr can hardly be considered a significant factor – and I understand the economics well enough to recognize why the education sticker prices are what they are nowadays, but it just feels wrong that the 14th-ranked “national liberal arts college” costs more than the 3rd-ranked “national university”, where the latter clearly offers superior experience and superior opportunities.

Of course, as many other upper-tier schools, Vassar is need-blind or need-neutral or whatever the correct term is. They promise to accept you without any consideration for your ability to pay and then work with you to cover the difference between what you are able to pay and the yearly cost by means of a customized financial aid package. The pitch to low-income families is that if you are accepted, you may not have to pay anything out of pocket, based on the formula for the family contribution that the school uses. The pitch to middle-class prospective students… does not exist really, who knows what their formula is going to say we should pay out of pocket?…

But I digress. Financial considerations will be roughly the same at any school, as merit-based scholarships are giving way to completely need-based financial aid at many institutions around the country.

The girl who led our tour group awed us with her ability to talk while constantly walking backwards, but while she was personable and well-spoken, she very clearly talked from an advertising script and answered every question with an enthusiastic example of how good she was having it at the school that stretched credibility. For instance, she appeared on the very previous night as having gone to a soccer game, a comedy show, a dance with an hour-long wait to get in, and a play. I realize that her goal was to illustrate the variety of stuff to do on campus beyond studying, but she only succeeded in making me alternately admire her ability to be in so many places at once or question whether any, you know, studying was part of her daily schedule at all.

The admission officer who held the info session had a few thoughtful insights interspersed with light comedy, but then quickly deteriorated in my eyes as he started answering questions. Many of those were along the lines of “Can you please talk about such and such program?” and his answer to every single one of them started with “Oh, yes, it is one of our most popular programs. It’s great! Students love it!” I counted close to a dozen “most popular” programs, of which only one or two were on the list of most popular majors that he himself gave the audience at the beginning.

Oh well, if those were the only negative impressions I had from our visit, I must conclude that the place looks rather attractive on balance. Becky liked it, with a qualifier that she liked Yale better. The programs, though, look pretty good, and she could see herself living and studying on a pretty campus such as Vassar’s. I guess we’re applying.

The price tag will be a separate conversation. If she is accepted, of course.

College education

College tour impressions: Yale

September 20th, 2011
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We started our college-touring itinerary aiming pretty high – with the better of the two Ivy League schools on our list. It is arguable whether you want to be comparing up or comparing down later on when you go through such exercise, but I will not strongly defend our choice to designate the best school on the list as the very first visit. Our itinerary just happened to work out the way that, of all the Saturday day-trips in our plans, Yale ended up as the opening act.

Given Becky’s erstwhile lukewarm reaction to Princeton, I was somewhat fearing that she would find another top-notch institution as stuffy and snotty and devoid of vibrancy that she is looking for. My fears proved unfounded. In fact, both her and my standard answer to the question of “Did you like it?” in the couple of days since we visited has been a question in reply – “What’s not to like?”

Beautiful semi-urban setting – the campus feels both well-defined in itself and also well-integrated into a city of reasonably small size. Architecturally pleasing: Important edifices do stand out with only a hint of being pretentious, while general-use buildings cannot be called “nondescript” to any degree.

That Yale academics are beyond comparison with most of schools in the nation is fairly obvious without saying. That academics are supplemented not only by excellent research facilities but also by superb residential accommodations is an attractive point in itself. Each residential college has all essential facilities contained within its own walls – on a rainy Sunday those so inclined could never venture outside and still avail themselves to the full range of study, play, dining and entertainment. Plus, there are plenty of uncommon facilities – say, a recording studio – that are available to all students on campus.

The people we heard on campus served their cause well. The kid who led our tour, for instance, was talkative and engaging and interesting all by himself, and not for a second he gave us an impression that he was working from a script (which he undoubtedly was). Somehow, my mental picture of a young person with a bright future fit that kid perfectly and made it very easy to identify the university with that type of a student. Which is obviously a selling point for a parent who wants his child to have a bright future of her own.

There were a number of things we heard that were real selling points for Becky – the “shopping period” at the start of each semester, during which students can go to any number of classes without having to register for them until they are happy with their choices; the structure of the degree requirements; the availability of studying abroad for a semester or two; the breadth of quality programs in the disciplines Becky is most interested in; the well-established Hillel organization – which we technically either already knew or could have learned through online resources, but hearing them directly from people on campus somehow made them more significant.

All in all, we could not find any single point to put into a “con” column, while the list in “pro” column grew to over a dozen bullets. The university is super-selective, accepting only a small fraction of applicants, but we will not know if we do not apply. Yale seems a no-brainer to apply to, no matter what the chances are.

And come next Saturday, we are off to another institution.

College education

Introduction to touring colleges

September 19th, 2011

When I was a college-bound kid – where I grew up is of significant importance, of course – both the task of applying and the ensuing admission process were comparatively simple exercises. Not easy, just simple.

You’d pick your future profession, for all senses and purposes, and then you’d apply to the only higher education institution in your geographic vicinity that offered a degree in that area (or you could substitute the choice of college that was easier to get in for the choice of future profession). The application consisted of nothing more than a simple “request for admission” supplemented by your High School diploma; no essays, recommendations, standardized test results; no fees either. Applying to more than one prospective institution was technically possible, I suppose, it just wasn’t a common thing to do. Especially, considering that every institution required you to take its own entrance exams in June-July, which would be logistically rather impossible to manage with more than one college in a given summer. You took your entrance exams, and then you’d either make the cut or it’s “better luck next year”…

Yes, there were slight variations to the above: People from other parts of the country did apply to institutions in Moscow or Leningrad, especially since some elite fields of study were not available elsewhere; some disciplines were available at multiple colleges within reach, each with a negligible specific slant; I’m sure there were limited opportunities to attempt to gain admission to a “backup” school if you failed at your first-choice one. But overall, the line was straight: Pick a school, take exams, and make it or fail it.

Years later, on a different continent in a different country, my eldest is applying for college. The arguably objective – if easily corruptible, in the case of oral examinations, – criterion of excelling on entrance exams is replaced here with an opaque and incomprehensible admission decision made by a faceless official who attempts to differentiate my child from scores of others on the basis of essays, recommendations, GPA, SAT, ACT, shmay-see-tee, and whatever personal problems or triumphs that particular official is experiencing on that particular day.

On the considerable upside, there is no need to lock yourself into a specific field of study at the tender age of seventeen. And applying to as many colleges as you want is only limited by how much you can spend on application fees. Which could be a double-edged sword if you don’t know where to stop.

Becky is a smart kid, a very good student with excellent grades and far-above-average test results, but she is nowhere near knowing what she wants to do with her life. She does have favorite disciplines, though, none of which are technical or scientific or even career-specific. So Natasha and her spend a bit of time playing with online college-matching tools and identify a list of a dozen schools that appear a good fit for our high-school senior.

It is not a complicated algorithm. The school needs to be within reasonable driving distance from home – not necessarily within day-trip distance, but no farther than weekend-trip distance. The school needs to have well-established programs in Languages, Arts and History.

And the school campus needs to feel like a good place to call home for the next four years. Whatever that means. It’s an impression thing. Becky tagged along with our good friends last spring on tours to Columbia and Princeton and was not impressed by either. Yes, really.

I am not the one to impose any criteria of my own on my child. I tend to think that an Ivy League education does open additional doors to a graduate, but anything outside of Ivy League is more or less interchangeable. I was accepted to both Ivy League schools that I applied to (as a transfer student, mind you), but chose instead to go to a university ranked towards the bottom of the second hundred on the national scale – and I humbly submit that I did all right for me and my family. So did most of my friends whom I met at school.

With that in mind, I will only insist on a specific school if it is an Ivy League member that Becky gets accepted to. There are two on her list. The rest are top-to-middle-tier Liberal Arts colleges and national universities. I am not going to argue with her that getting a first-hand feel for each place, over and above what we can learn about them online or from respective alumni, is not an important differentiating factor, should she be accepted to multiple places.

Or even not a factor in deciding whether to apply at all. Even with the “common application” that is currently accepted at most colleges nationwide, each school still require a lot of individual attention in completing their application process. With a dozen schools in the mix, it is a lot of somewhat repetitive work. If the school does not feel right when explored first-hand, then cutting it from the list there and then may be a prudent thing to do.

Long introduction nearing conclusion, over the next several weeks, Becky and I are touring a dozen different colleges in Northeast and down to Virginia. I am amped to be able to do some regional travel and have experiences that passed me by when I was a kid. Becky is decidedly more reserved about spending that much time on the road with her old man.

You should be amped as well. I intend to write up my brief impressions of every one of our stops, and surely you’ve been clamoring for my writing lately…

College education

The grass is greener…

September 1st, 2011

I would really like to live in a place with no natural disasters or extreme weather conditions to disrupt the normal flow of life. No tornadoes, no hurricanes, no volcanoes, no earthquakes. No snow storms dumping ungodly amounts of snow on my driveway. No heat waves, for that matter.

Fine, I’ll take an occasional heat wave, as long as A/C is working, but not all that other stuff.

Unfortunately, it looks like where I live the only thing missing from the list above is a volcano. Counting my blessings, I suppose.

More importantly, I want to live in a place where you don’t lose power two days after extreme weather ended, courtesy of an imbecile knocking down a power line in a delivery truck. Or at least can get it back in short time, and not remain without power for days because of all of the other repairs that are going on post-extreme weather.

I’m sure such places exist…

Suburbia