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10 Tips for a Meaningful Campus Tour

It takes more than walking backwards
University Business, Oct 2009

Competition for students is even more intense with the current economy. Colleges and universities must expand recruitment and retention programs in the face of shrinking budgets. The U.S. Department of Education estimates enrollment at degree-granting institutions to increase from 17.8 million students in 2006 to 20.1 million in 2017, a 13 percent increase. How can institutions connect with these students--potential leaders and generous alumni--and to their parents, whose role in this potentially quarter-of-a-million dollar decision can’t be underestimated?

The campus tour, aptly dubbed the Golden Walk, is an effective and proven recruitment tool that can significantly increase the likelihood a student will apply and enroll to the school. In a 2007 report by higher education consulting firm Noel-Levitz, four- and two-year institutions ranked campus visit days among the top four most effective recruiting practices.

Pamela Lucas Rew, AIA, a partner at Princeton-based architectural firm KSS Architects, has designed higher educational buildings and master plans for more than 20 years. But when time came to visit colleges with her oldest daughter, she began seeing campuses in a different light--as a parent anxious for her child’s happiness, success, and safety, and as a spectator on many campus tours. Her daughter Margaret later became a campus tour leader as a freshman at Tufts University (Mass.) after a selection process more grueling than college admissions itself.

Together, Pamela and Margaret offered 10 insider tips every institution should know about campus tours.

“Ignore the trash cans,” Margaret says apologetically to her tour groups as they begin the route demarcated by her university. Though the path approaches the new dormitories from an interesting perspective, it also takes the group right by the campus dumpsters. Once a skeptical prospective student herself, Margaret knows first impressions count. She and her mother still talk about the university that kicked off the tour in a claustrophobic and empty admissions office.

Campus appearance plays a large role in students’ enrollment decisions. Sixty percent of students at four-year institutions rated campus appearance as important or very important according to Noel-Levitz. Campus tours have the benefit of forcing people to leave their cars and experience the institution on foot. As a result, the location of the admissions office is critical and must put the institution’s best foot forward. Though it is often relegated to the campus edge for convenience, parking, and accessibility, it should still embody the campus’ history and culture. At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, tours begin at the iconic Main Building, also known as UT Tower. Visitors are immediately immersed in the campus’ history and culture.

As Margaret introduces her beloved campus, she also takes care to minimize buzzwords. Honesty and authenticity ring true with students while clich?s and banalities turn off students, who then tune out.

College websites may try to answer every question imaginable, but they are no substitute to stepping onto a campus lawn. Websites cannot give students the confidence that “yes, I can fit in here,” or “no, I definitely do not belong here.” Campus tours give students a chance “to look around to see who they may become friends with,” says Margaret. She fields many personal questions about her life and what she does for fun, but she doesn’t mind. Prospective students just want a sense of what their academic and social lives may look like in college.

Margaret takes her tour groups to the lawn of Tufts President’s residence, located in the heart of campus between academic buildings and fraternity houses. Its proximity impresses tour groups. “I like to acknowledge how important it is to our university president to live here and be on campus,” Margaret says. By adding personal touches to campus tours, such as faculty meetings, dorm room stays, or simply friendly, knowledgeable tour guides, institutions differentiate themselves and capitalize on this small, crucial opportunity to recruit.

Margaret encourages her groups to attend a student panel so they can ask questions, hear different perspectives, and see other prospective and current students. At one university she visited, Margaret was struck by the surprisingly diverse group of students on the panel whereas she had observed a relatively uniform student body during the campus tour. Students will pick up on any disingenuous, inconsistent, or contrived move in all recruitment efforts by not just tour leaders, but also the university. When the formal panel ends, provide opportunities for students to mingle with other students in a casual, less formulaic manner.

Margaret is selective about which stops her groups linger and which they breeze through. For all the time architects and planners study, finesse, and agonize over master plan design, Margaret wants her mother to know students appreciate it--even if they’re not sure why. At Tufts, the slightest increase in temperature sends students sprawling onto the well-trodden lawns, playing music and Frisbee, reading, or sleeping. “It’s like a giant living room,” she says. By integrating open spaces with buildings and popular pedestrian paths, good master plans support student life and the universal need “to see and be seen,” Pamela says.

While showpiece facilities may capture the eyes of parents, students are more attuned to the use of spaces. Where are students congregating and which buildings are empty? Growing up with two parents who are practicing architects, Margaret developed a discerning eye for building design and program. She notes Tufts’ Mayer Campus Center is primarily hardscape and transitional spaces where people come and go. The only place for interaction is in line for food. “The building is useful--people eat and study there all the time, but it has a lot of wasted space,” she says.

Tufts’ Tisch Library is much more successful, Margaret says. High ceilings open up its space so students don’t feel trapped or cramped. Comfortable chairs in quiet areas, wireless internet connection, and a cafe that offers free coffee for students meeting their professors increase the incentive to visit. The library has workspaces for a range of occupancies and uses from individual study to group work. The sense of camaraderie is particularly high when students fill the large study areas, each working quietly and independently, but sharing in the comfort of having their peers around them.

When Pamela designs campus master plans, she strategically relocates vehicular traffic to the campus perimeter while pedestrian paths, green spaces, and popular student destinations move toward the center. While touring campuses with her daughter, Pamela discovered another advantage to this layout: Fewer roads crisscrossing campus mean fewer distractions from vehicular traffic and more opportunities for tour groups to focus on experiencing and engaging with the campus.

Pedestrian friendliness is a top priority for many institutions. By creating a network of pedestrian-friendly walks at the campus core and redirecting vehicular traffic to campus edges, institutions can promote sustainability, socializing, and campus engagement. A recent land use master plan Pamela designed for Drew University (N.J.) recommended replacing 1,600 feet of existing roads that cut across the heavily forested campus with pedestrian walkways and relocating parking lots and roads to campus edges.

Nearly every tour group asks to see a dorm room, Margaret says. While parents want to know about meal plans and dorm room safety, students want to see potential floor mates and the space they’ll be calling home. They both really want to see rooms students actually live in, and not one staged with pristine furniture?though forgotten pizza and dirty socks are undesired too. Some colleges don’t include dorm rooms on tour, but Margaret recommends the contrary. For students who are continuously evaluating whether they’ll fit in, the atmosphere of residences is a big concern?more so than square footage and amenities.

Many colleges provide virtual 360-degree tours with varying levels of complexity and usability on their websites. The College of Wooster (Ohio) has even set up a virtual dorm room where students can click on various objects to learn more about the institution.

Dining halls and food courts are scattered throughout Tufts’ campus. Some older dining halls have little natural light and little incentive for students to linger or hang out, a result of early design theories that separated eating and lounge spaces. “They’re pure function,” Margaret says. “When you’re done eating, you are done.”

Margaret directs her tours to newer and more successful dining spaces. Tour groups ooh and ah over the myriad of food stations offering fresh produce and mix-your-own-meals. Lines always form at the omelet station, and coffee is vital even if it’s not very good, she says.

Service stations and organic food are top trends in campus food services, Pamela says. A 2006 Aramark survey found that 13 percent of students strongly preferred organic foods to other foods, up from 9 percent in 2005. A Sodexo study found the top 10 food menu trends in 2009 include “locally-grown fruits and veggies” and “goat cheese salad (with lavender lentils).” Back in 1989, these trends included chicken nuggets and egg, bacon and cheese English muffins. Admittedly, “mac’n five cheeses” also made the 2009 cut.

Margaret says students appreciate cafeterias serving locally grown food, but points out students are still living on a student budget. Organic food is on the wish list and not necessarily the shopping list. Though it’s important, she says, its premium in cost makes it “not of huge importance” if they are the ones doing the buying. Trayless cafeterias and eliminating bottled water sales shows students their values matter.

Energy efficiency and cost savings top many universities’ list of reasons to build green, but it’s also a major selling point for today’s environmentally aware students. “It’s really not acceptable in any other way for new buildings,” Margaret says, which her mom likes to hear. Students’ concern for the environment is not just reflected in their lifestyles, but also in their course of study. Majors related to the environment such as science, engineering, and policy are the fastest growing on campuses today.

The Princeton Review’s 2009 “College Hopes and Worries Survey” found 24 percent of college applicants said an institution’s commitment to the environment significantly affects their decision to apply or attend. Last year, researchers at the College of William and Mary (Va.) found “current freshmen are two times more likely to choose their school based on sustainability concerns than the entering freshman class just three years ago.”

While students may still print like there’s no tomorrow, they are taking notice of the sustainable measures institutions are putting into practice. In fact, institutions should “advertise” what they are or will be doing that is sustainable, such as a new building or recycling programs, to give students a preview of what is coming and opportunities to participate in this developing issue.

Instead of barreling through the tour Margaret takes frequent stops for several reasons. It gives students and parents a chance to gain their bearings and absorb their surroundings. From the new landscape to the activities around them, students need to envision themselves on campus. Visitors want to rest their feet but continue observing--or becoming a part of--the campus activity. Some people are more comfortable approaching and asking the tour guide questions individually.

To accommodate these critical but often overlooked moments in the tour, the campus walk and tour route should include several open, welcoming, and lively breakout spaces. Drew University’s campus master plan, for example, incorporates several formal and informal gathering spaces along the main campus walk, from hardscaped terraces with patio seating to open stretches of grass under a canopy of trees.

The campus tour should find ways to show off your students. While it is important to herald your renowned faculty and facilities, prospective students really drove x miles to see students. The most credible way for prospective students to know they’ll thrive on your campus is to see students like themselves thriving on your campus. Tour guides could also mention successful alumni who have walked through the same corridors in which the groups are walking. Prospective students may express less outward interest than their parents, but secretly they’ll gain a sense of empowerment in knowing what students like them can accomplish.

Successful campus tours take prospective students and families to diverse campus community settings and environments where current students live, work, and play. Tour guides should be passionate, knowledgeable, attentive, and sincere in promoting their second home. After all, what makes campus sights and tour stops even more outstanding and memorable is when they’re connected by an equally memorable journey.

Pamela Lucas Rew, AIA, is a partner at KSS Architects, which has offices in Princeton, N.J., and Philadelphia. With more than 20 years of experience, she has designed academic buildings and master plans for many higher education institutions, including Hobart and William Smith colleges, Lawrence University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Margaret Rew will be entering her third year as a student and tour leader at Tufts University this fall. Wanda Lau is the communications manager at KSS and a former tour leader at her alma mater, Michigan State University.