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Column: How colleges make the grade

‘Do you play bridge?" asked my student tour guide at Northwestern University back when I was a high school senior. "Because we love bridge here. Can't get enough of it!"

She was just one random bridge player, I realize now, who unintentionally convinced me not to attend her school — influencing a major life decision on completely absurd grounds.

This is the week that college-bound seniors around the country have just decided which school they'll attend, and even now, when algorithms can help match you and the campus of your dreams, a lot still comes down to chemistry and chance. The 20th college my 18-year-old daughter visited, just last month, ended up being "the one." But along the road to that realization, during a mother-daughter farewell trip that neither of us really wanted to end, we encountered new versions of that bridge player — people who instantly clarified my daughter's decision in ways that the admissions departments probably didn't intend:

The deserted campus. "Where is everyone?" my daughter asked as we walked through Bennington College, one of the finest liberal arts schools in the country. It was 11 a.m. on a weekday, but the campus in rural Vermont seemed almost entirely unpopulated. The students were still sleeping, our tour guide suggested.

Seeing so few humans, my daughter asked her to describe them for us. "What about diversity?" To her credit, the young woman leading the tour of a school known for its progressive leanings was honest: "Ideologically, there isn't any."

Later, while visiting one of the dorms, we were shown the community condom cabinet and told that residents often huddle together for warmth, because, as good enviros, they keep the thermostat low in the winter. For $57,000, I kind of wanted heat to be included.

So when my daughter asked whether it would be rude to leave before lunch, I said, "Race ya to the car!"

The WTMI tour guide. Although Bennington's honest guide was helpful, another truth-telling tour leader dispensed way too much information — in a way that said nothing about the University of California at San Diego. The school's science programs are particularly strong, and with a beachfront location, what's not to love?

Alas, the student guide soon had parents and progeny alike staring intently at our shoes as she talked about her steamy dating life and her preference for being the one who picks up guys when she goes clubbing. "Do you grind on the dance floor?" she asked one poor male high school student after another.

As I wondered how they screen these guides, my daughter reached her own conclusion: California might be too far from home.

The overprivileged dorm life. In an earlier West Coast stop, we'd visited Jesuit-run Santa Clara University — a place that was more my cup of Communion wine than my less Catholic daughter's. It was a no-go even before the young guide mentioned what she considered a big selling point: Turns out, you can get room service in the dorms — "and college doesn't get any better than that!"

"Hopefully, it does," my daughter whispered.

What was it about No. 20, the University of Denver, that sealed the deal? Its public health and writing programs, focus on service, medium size, sports-loving culture and urban location were all factors that she'd come to realize were important to her. But that "Oh, this is the spot for me" feeling isn't something you can get by making a list.

On our one subsequent tour, at Indiana University, she said that beautiful as Bloomington was in full bloom, "I spent the whole time thinking about Denver."

So that was it, and we weren't at all sorry to skip that afternoon's dorm tour.

© 2014 Washington Post

Column: How colleges make the grade 05/01/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 4:02pm]
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