I just did the college tour for the fourth and final time, for my youngest son. We covered five schools in four states in just two days.
I've got lots of advice for parents (and students) who've never done the drill. My wife and I think we could write the book. Here's one tip: Always sign up for the information session and not just the tour. We've usually found the 45-minute briefings to be more informative than what you see on a campus stroll.
Lots has changed since we began this process with our daughter more than a decade ago, including my reaction to one school: Brown University. (Full disclosure: I don't think my son will apply to Brown, lest anyone think this is but an extension of his common app essay.)
I was still thinking about Brown when, three days after our return, Frank Bruni wrote a widely circulated piece for the New York Times. Bruni acknowledged that many students don't have the luxury of developing a strategy for college because they are facing other demands while getting an education. Still, for those who do, he argued against regarding college as a credentialing exercise. Instead, he advocated developing peer relationships and building on social capital by getting to know faculty. But what caught my eye was his admonition that too many students sweat perfection while "avoiding risk."
Which takes me back to Brown.
Perhaps you've heard that at the Ivy League institution in Providence, R.I., they offer pass/fail grading and open enrollment. You can take virtually any class you want without going for a conventional grade. When registering for courses, students designate whether they wish to receive a grade or instead be recorded as either "satisfactory" or "no credit." This choice can then be changed (online) during the first four weeks of the semester. As the website explains:
"In keeping with the spirit of the open curriculum, Brown does not compute students' grade point averages. Students who have questions about how to complete applications for external opportunities (e.g. graduate or professional school, fellowships) are encouraged to consult with an academic dean."
And while Brown offers more than 80 areas of concentration, or what I still call a "major," there are no core requirements outside that field of study.
Moreover, some concentrations require as few as eight courses, meaning you could theoretically explore for three full years and then focus on a particular area of study in your senior year. The admissions brochure says "open enrollment" is intended to force Brown students to be "creative thinkers, intellectual risk takers and entrepreneurial problem solvers."
"You can come here and take anything," said one of our student tour guides.
I know, many will write this off as liberal, Ivy League coddling of snowflakes. That's what I used to think, back when it was our first of four who was looking at schools. (Did I mention there is Nudity Week every fall that celebrates nakedness, featuring naked yoga, nude body painting, and open-mic events?) But I've changed my mind.
If you can gain admission to Brown, you've already proved yourself. Last year, it had 32,724 applicants for 2,722 openings, the largest applicant pool in history. Surviving that gantlet enables the full sampling of the nearly 2,000 courses that are offered each year.
I distinctly recall my undergraduate days at Lehigh being largely fixated on attaining a GPA that would enable my law school admission. By sophomore year, I'd clipped the target range for applicants to Penn Law from their admissions brochure and pinned it on the bulletin board above my fraternity desk. It all worked out. I attained my goal, and I received a terrific education. But there are so many things I still know nothing about that would have been engaging to study without worrying how they'd impact my GPA.
So, for laughs and giggles, when I came home from our road trip, I accessed the fall offerings at Brown and tried to pick my own first semester, composed of subjects I would never have touched back in the day. I've narrowed my classes to these five:
CHIN 0100. Basic Chinese: A year-long introduction to Standard Chinese (Mandarin). Speaking, reading, writing, and grammar. Five classroom meetings weekly.
NEUR 1930Z. Cells and Circuits of the Nervous System: Selected topics on the biology of neurons and neuronal networks emphasizing primary research literature about neuronal excitability, synaptic mechanisms and plasticity, and diverse sensory, motor, and cognitive functions of neural circuits in vertebrate brains.
VISA 1310. Painting, Beginning to Intermediate: Painting for a variety of interests and aptitudes — basic instruction in media and painting procedure, emphasis on development of the image as a visual statement.
RELS 1530B. Heresy and Orthodoxy in Islamic Thought: Orthodoxy is defined as "right belief" while Heresy is just the opposite, but those definitions have always been in tension with society and culture. This course will interrogate theory and history to ask, "What are Islamic Orthodoxy and Heresy?"
ENGN 0030. Introduction to Engineering: An introduction to various engineering disciplines, thought processes, and issues. Topics include computing in engineering, engineering design, optimization, and estimation. (Note: This course does have a prerequisite that can be taken concurrently, so I might have to wait until spring.)