“We began realizing the potential social good in evening the playing field for first-generation low-income students, or students who live too far away to visit campus,” he said.
The little group dubbed itself LiveCampusTours by Nylie (an acronym for “Narrowing your list is easy”). They received encouragement from college admission staffers, counselors, high school students, parents and even lawyers. Nearly 4,000 undergraduates flooded their tour guide application page in December after word spread they were paying $20 an hour. Now they have about 400 guides at about 175 schools, and some rave reviews.
As I said, this is America, so they also have two dozen unfriendly letters from lawyers telling them to butt out of what some colleges consider their exclusive right to manage all tours. Two universities have threatened to discipline students who have already signed up to be guides for LiveCampusTours.
I can see why this enterprise might bother otherwise kind and friendly educators when there is so much administrative chaos on campus during the pandemic. But some perspective is in order. The students working as guides like putting a personal spin on their campuses. The high school students who take the tour pay just $39 for a unique personal perspective and spare themselves a long car drive with their parents.
Are complaining institutions as solid as Yale, Stanford, Pepperdine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill likely to topple as a result of this useful service? Don’t they realize each guide is bragging on a school she or he personally chose?
The good news is at least 165 colleges and universities on the LiveCampusTours website have not denounced the effort. Those schools apparently understand the yearning of American youths to try new stuff. It’s interesting that Stanford, a genuine fount of innovation, gave its cautionary letter a softness suggesting unspoken sympathy. Lisa Wu of the university’s general counsel’s office said, “We would like to gently remind you” of rules on filming and commercial activity.
The other founders are Kugel’s education administrator brother Jeremy, Jeremy’s son Leo, who is in high school, entrepreneur Andrew O’Mara and recent college graduate Emily Mayfield. They have received supportive notes from some colleges. They welcome suggestions. They happily complied with a University of Texas request that their two guides for the Austin campus not wear UT shirts or give the “Hook ’em Horns” sign in their profile pictures.
One high school student said he signed up for the one-on-one Zoom tour of the University of Michigan only because his parents made him. He said he found the experience “awesome.” His guide “was so enthusiastic about the school and showed me the Big House, his favorite sandwich shop, and a real passion for Michigan’s academics.” After the tour, he put Michigan at the top of his list.
The LiveCampusTours founders composed a genial open letter to campus general counsels. They noted that their homepage disclaimed in big purple letters any association with any college. They promised to take down anything that violated university trademarks or copyrights. They likened their service to countless online reviews that feature colleges without formal permission.
Their business serves a need while the pandemic makes campus visits difficult, especially for low-income students, who get their tour discounted to whatever they can afford. “We acknowledge that you may have the power and money to crush our small company,” they told the universities. “We hope that you will not exercise it.” They said they don’t expect to make much money but like the idea of doing good.
Elizabeth Irvin, a 20-year-old student of anthropology and film at Wesleyan University, got so deep into her touring duties that the founders put her on the leadership team and made her a shareholder. “I understand that colleges want to protect their image/brand,” she told me in an email, “but if they are so worried about their students potentially bad-mouthing them (which they very, very rarely do on our platform), maybe they should spend more time addressing their students’ issues.”
This will probably be the most strenuous and discouraging college admissions season in U.S. history, with applications hitting record numbers and reopening times uncertain. Why stand in the way of a little company using free-speaking and fun-loving undergraduates to get everyone back into a good mood?