My First College Fair

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I’ve hit another milestone in my life. I attended my first college fair. Cross it off the list. This Tuesday, I accompanied my 16-year old son to the Virginia Beach Public Schools College Fair at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. Over 175 colleges from around the country were in attendance. The University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and George Mason were some of those in attendance, as well as Tidewater Community College and several military colleges. But to my surprise there were also many large, out-of-state colleges, such as Notre Dame and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  Those, to me, are big-name places.

I’ve often argued about the utility of these fairs, and College Goal Sunday and other, similar-styled events. After attending my first college fair, my issues are confirmed. I simply don’t see the point. I understand that this statement will dismay those who spend countless hours working on these events; surely, a massive amount of human resource must go into these events to improve college access around the country. I don’t mean to dismiss these efforts as fruitless. They aren’t. I just don’t think the work justifies the outcomes. Let me explain.

First, from my conversations with professionals in the field, and certainly from my attendance this past week, the students in attendance are going to college anyway. This isn’t outreach to those who are not planning for college. It is, rather, an opportunity for college-educated parents to take their soon-to-be-college-educated children to see what is out there. And also a chance, perhaps, for parents to strut a bit because they “did” go to college. I can’t be sure, of course, but from my review of those in attendance, they didn’t look like first-generation, Pell-eligible students by any means; nor did the cars in the parking lot.

Second, I’m not sure what is learned or gained at these events. The College Fair was a madhouse, right up there with the HGTV events at the same convention center. OK, this was madder than those, because I saw high school students chatting with each other, playing tag, and a few other things to be dismissed in this column. I saw gatherings around a few popular college booths, like Virginia Tech, and I saw a whole host of booths with no one talking to the representatives, including Rensselaer, which is undoubtedly one of the finest engineering and technical schools in the nation. But mostly, students were “milling.” Milling because they didn’t know what to ask. They didn’t know what the takeaway was. “What’s it like there?” “How much is it?” “What’s it like to go to a women’s college.” Not bad questions, but the quality of answers is the true measure. Some of the representatives were from the college; others were local alumni; some who had evidently graduated from the college in the ‘60s. I don’t think their reflection of campus life will be much use for students in 2012. Maybe they can twitter a message back to the students once they do their background research. Additionally, for the salaried reps, their job is to get names and numbers; what are they really going to say about their institution compared with the competition? It’s a sale game, so they won’t exactly be divulging all that “is.” They are in sales.

In this era of technology, most of the questions posed at the college fair can be answered better via college websites. My son, all 16 years of wisdom, said to me, “Dad, what’s the point? I can just go to the website,” while he simultaneously sent three text messages off his EnV3 in the course of a minute without losing his train of thought. He’s right, for the most part. Of course, I (the thrice-college educated one) took him to the fair because I wanted him to see the many splendored colleges and the sheer diversity of options available to him and our future debt account, hoping he would look toward the options that weren’t $35k a year. I was obviously pleased, to a point, with his response: “I think I should do my first two years at TCC (Tidewater Community College) and then transfer to UVa (University of Virginia). That would save a bunch of money.” I’m not making this up. He said this verbatim, without the parentheses. A great mind, he is. Of course, I don’t necessarily want him to lose the freshman experience associated with attending a residential institution, either. So, we’ll have some decisions to make next year when we start doing college visits, which we will do because I do believe they are uniquely important (even thought I had never visited any of my three colleges before matriculation; hadn’t heard of two of them).

By the way, to those who say not everyone has internet access… please… let’s not be insulting. Everyone either has direct access or can get access. Not a school or library in the country exists without broadband access (thanks to the e-rate program). Put that one back in your age-old, politically suggestive, and erred coffee-table statistics bag of tricks.

So, what is the real purpose of the college fair? To make organizations and institutions feel like they are broadening opportunity? Because I don’t believe they do broaden opportunity. They are, if anything else, pacifying the college-educated parents and those who think this expands opportunity. It doesn’t. But those numbers will sure look good on the annual report when we say that 1,750 people went to this year’s fair. Tell me–what is the real impact of the fair? If you can’t tell me that, you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s like saying I had 100 students come to Saturday Academy. Big deal. What did it amount to? If you can show me a positive short- and long-term impact, I’m in. But no one does because they don’t think that way. They think today and as far as their grant necessitates.

The real and only problem with these fairs and the related strategies used to “increase access” is all the effort we don’t spend attending to the serious and real problem of college access. It isn’t about pre-college programs, college fairs, and countless other efforts to increase access, many of which have some utility. Ultimately, it’s about changing how we “do” school. Last week I spoke of the problems of teacher education programs, using the statements of the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to buttress my statement of the backwards nature of our educational training system. The same goes for our schools. We still work in a mindset of the 1930s classroom, for the most part. In 2009, I can’t imagine a more important role in our schools than the guidance counselor, a position that is often relegated to truant officer rather than college and life coach.

Why we don’t think that college and career planning is critical to the future success of a youth is mind-boggling to me. Yes, we need to ensure our students have a firm grasp on the academic knowledge important to success in a globally-competitive environment. But if we aren’t educating these same students with the knowledge and skill sets necessary to utilize that academic foundation in the real world, we are neglecting our true role in molding these individuals for a better way of life. But we don’t.

I’m looking to some of our more powerful foundations and education and economic leaders around the country to say what needs to be said—not that we need to have two thirds of our youth to have a college degree, but to ensure that our school children have the necessary resources to plan for their future, equipped with the knowledge to get to where they, in a self-determined manner, want to get. This takes a reformation of how we do high school. It isn’t about bringing in the local fireman or the doctor. It is about ensuring that these students go through a thorough, intensive review of the world in which we live, look at the career horizons and explore the many types of jobs and the education pathways to attain that living and lifestyle. THIS is an education. Then all the academics start to make sense. Until then, our students–our children–are just going through the motions, taking their requisite chemistry and mathematics classes that they simply can’t connect with their future.

As USC’s Bill Tierney said 10 years ago at our ConnectED 2000 conference in San Diego, all our pre-college outreach programs are scaffolding to help us rebuild our schools and the education system. The problem is when we rely on the scaffolding for core activities and never take it down. That’s where we are. We are sitting in place, relying on these well-intentioned safety-net programs to carry us through the 21st century instead of rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of real and true school reform.

I want to thank all of the people who work in college access programs around the US and Canada. TRIO, GEAR UP, I Have a Dream, MESA, AVID, and countless others. Your efforts are not only well intentioned, but they DO make a difference in the lives of many students. But I also hope that we can limit your work someday due to the effort we place on embedding these activities and strategies in the regular school curriculum. That’s where this conversation needs to go, and no one is having it. Maybe now.

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