FOR FOUR DAYS last week, I shopped Ivy League colleges, and it was not like strolling the aisles of several well-stocked supermarkets.
My visits were in the capacity of mother of the high school senior -- or "pre-freshman," as one effusive tour guide labeled the assorted group of jeans-and kilt-clad young people she led around with their parents fluttering birdlike in the background.
How do parents and children go about choosing a college? Instead of a shopping list with items that last a week or a month, the list contains checkoffs that will affect the next four years and beyond, for certain colleges hook one into a network for life, feeding as they do into certain law firms or businesses -- checkoffs that are contingent upon that university's professors, alumni and money sources.
At the same time, the bill for the shopping is so straggering that much of the tour is conducted in a mere faint. With costs hovering around $9,500 a year not only for the most expensive colleges such as Harvard, but also for the much less prestigious ones, you can't shake the realization that for the price of four years of college you could buy a house in some cities (not Washington), four cars in most, or a lot of grits at the store.
The unnerving thing about the process is not only that it must be in the end the kid's decision, but also that during the process of touring the "pre-freshman" is largely unaware of the subtleties that are consuming the attention of the parents. Thus she is liable to wither with embarrassment as you relentlessly grill admissions personnel on financial loans and work study plans; her concerns are more whether she has the grades to be accepted, whether she'll be comfortable "in the ambiance," how large the dormitory rooms are and how lenient the social rules.
I was as green as the winter grass in Florida about this process. When I went to college, we looked at the course, listings and pictures in the brochures, picked one we could afford and hoped there'd be a job waiting at the end. It has only been in the last decade or so that women and minorities have gotten into some of these Ivy League colleges in anything resembling representative numbers. And my family certainly lacked the money for the luxury of college shopping.
And I also felt some ambivalence: Many students won't ever qualify because, as Ralph Nader and others have pointed out, the tests for admission are less a measure of competence that a screening device.
Boston was our destination as we boarded the overnight Amtrak sleeper at Union Station. We found New England ablaze with fall foliage in resplendent reds, pinks and oranges, so shimmering they seemed translucent. Our first stop was Harvard, steeped in its deep and rich traditions, and where a Brahmin admissions officer surprised me with the candid admission that the faculty ranged from "mediocre to brilliant." What further surprised me was that my daughter was turned off, partly by the sparse minority presence. I, on the other hand, could have snuggled up in the library for life.
Tufts University in the working class suburb of Medford, Mass., seemed an open, friendly place, with a fine academic tradition, and my "pre-freshman" was as attracted by the student-led tour that stressed the student life as I was turned off by it.
Wellesley, an all-woman's college in suburban Wellesley, Mass., is startingly beautiful and serene, and was given an edge by a tall, bold black woman who let us know that the Wellesley woman comes in all hues.
Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., was reached after a three-hour drive through yet another autumn wonderland, but my city-minded young lady found it "too isolated" despite spirited enticements from both students and faculty.
Brown University in Providence, R.I., beautiful and of fine academic quality, charmed her totally.
But now there is the southern tour she wants to make. Is there no end? In a world of too many choices, how does one choose? Especially when it is father and mother, not the young person, who must worry about the bills.
I found it surprising that all the colege tours were led by students, whose answers to questions ofter extended no further than their own experience. It was like a Rolls Royce dealer sending out his young son to clinch the final sale.
Going college-shopping brought home to me how we have come full circle -- from the time that getting into the university of one's choice was so tough it was akin to scaling an ice mountain to where colleges are saying, "Ya'll come," but with a caveat. They are a little like the credit card applications that come in the mail saying, "You have been selected to receive our credit card. Return your application and we will inform you if your credentials are acceptable."
But all in all, it was a useful shopping spree and I came back convinced that such visits are of tremendous help to the prospective student. Next time around, however, I'll call for appointments months in advance, because college shopping is so prevalent these days that the queues at the admissions offices are, you guessed it, as long as those in the supermarket on Saturday morning.