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College for All?

By Lori Chajet and Sierra Stoneman-Bell

On visits to a small private college in New York City and a large public one, the Youth Leaders walked the halls taking notes on what they observed, collecting fliers and school newspapers, and talking with students. They sat in on classes and talked with professors and administrators asking question after question. To admissions officers, they asked about application requirements, the weight of SAT scores, the importance of diversity, and more specifically: "Why do you reject applications?" To faculty, they asked about class size, their relationship with students, and how much homework they give. To students, they asked about everything from food in the cafeteria and parties, to their favorite classes and what makes them "feel comfortable" at their college.

The Youth Leaders' observation notes revealed the issues that were most important to them, including diversity, cost, and classroom practice. At the small private college they noted: small classes; a lot of whites; students and professors are really friendly; expensive food; $40,000/year; good class conversation; relaxed community; artistic walls; students talk more than teachers. When asked to describe how they felt, what they liked and what they didn't like one student wrote, I feel protected, another, I feel alone — isolated, and another, I feel familiar in this learning environment.

At the large public college students' observations touched upon similar issues but revealed how differently they played out there. Students noted: very racially diverse; 150 different languages spoken on campus; extremely low tuition, lunchroom food is great; lots of kids running to class; lots of events; the classrooms are big, the professor was over-talking; students don't ask questions in class; crazy schedules. Several concluded that they liked the diversity and the location of the school; others agreed that the campus reminded them of their high schools but disagreed about whether that was a positive thing; and none liked how large the classes were.

At the end of each visit, the high school students talked with the college students about what they had learned, what they thought and felt, and how the experience had changed their thinking about college. Not surprisingly, at the small private college the topic of diversity quickly surfaced. One Latina high school student voiced her discomfort with the small number of black and Latino students she saw and said she wanted to be in a diverse school where there were people like her. While all agreed that diversity was important to them, the college students offered a more nuanced view. A first-generation Latina college student shared her own uneasiness transitioning into a majority white environment but explained that the small, interactive classes outweighed her concerns.

At the large public college, where the visit was not designed or facilitated by students at the college but rather by college administrators, the conversation highlighted a different issue: how hard it is to get a real sense of a college when you limit the visit to talking with official representatives. After meeting with two deans and the student-body president in a formal board room, followed by Q & A with an admissions tour guide, the Youth Leaders expressed frustration that they were not getting candid views of the school. One commented, "People were just saying good things about the college and not sharing the negatives." Another expressed outrage that even when she asked the admission representative to share "the worst thing about the school," she still could not get a satisfactory answer.

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