College tours: When did applicants start visiting universities?

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Aug. 11 2011 6:57 PM

College Tours

When did they become a thing?

A tour group at Marquette University. Click to expand image.
A tour group at Marquette University

Despite a lousy economy and high gas prices, college visits by prospective students increased over the last year, according to an informal poll by the New York Times. Almost three-quarters of the 41 colleges surveyed said they had more visitors this summer than last. When did the pre-enrollment campus visit become a "thing"?

The late 1960s. The college visit as we know it—with guest-lectures from the provost, tours, and occasional free goodies—dates to the Vietnam era. During this time, universities faced increased competition from a boom in two-year colleges, while cheaper airfare, the civil rights movement, and a shift to co-educational teaching gave prospective students more choice than ever among postsecondary schools. Colleges realized they needed to market themselves more vigorously, and campus visits became a big part of the pitch. (This was a smart move: A 1982 study found that about 16 percent of prospective students considered their campus visit the most influential factor in naming their first-choice college.)

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Prior to the 1960s, most pre-enrollment visits were unorganized affairs. These trips might have included a stop by the admissions office or a peek inside the residence halls. Before 1900, even informal drop-ins were extremely rare, for several reasons. Students were typically younger than today's applicants and their fathers (or, in some cases, their ministers) tended to choose a university for them. The costs and discomfort of long-distance travel also made the prospect of visiting far-flung universities not terribly attractive. Most students who attended college just chose the one closest to them, unless they wanted something specific, like a military school or Jesuit university.

You don't have to visit faraway colleges to get a sense of life there.  Dozens of books  offer synopses as an alternative to cross-country flights and lengthy road trips. Prospective students can also take online "virtual tours" of a number of colleges, including  YalePrinceton, and  Middle Tennessee State University. Or read blogs, Twitter streams, and Facebook feeds written by students there. Still, the Times' survey suggests the '60s-style campus visit isn't disappearing anytime soon.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Margit A. Dahl of Yale University Undergraduate Admissions, Philo Hutcheson of Georgia State University, Peter Magolda of Miami University of Ohio, and David W. Robson of John Carroll University.

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