I've got a son in college and a daughter about to be. In the past four years, we've done a dozen college visits at nine different schools. It's been a research effort lasting years; perhaps I should report some results. First a disclaimer: I work for Purdue. I'll try to stay objective.
So here are a few of our experiences - research observations, I suppose. Start with the best, with names attached.
IU and Hanover led with their campuses. Good choice. They're both beautiful.
Several schools gave us free meal passes to a college dining hall. We tasted actual college fare and saw real college students doing real college-student things.
Ball State did a masterful presentation with some well-spoken students talking about internships, foreign study and special projects. I think they mentioned David Letterman once or twice.
The best college towns were IU's Bloomington, North Carolina's Chapel Hill, and Hope College's Holland, which doubles as a Lake Michigan resort in the summer. Those towns have a lot of student-centered stores and eateries within walking distance. NYU and Columbia have the stores and eateries of New York City within a subway ride. Not a fair comparison.
Our tour guide at NYU casually mentioned that his advisor was the voice of the beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" - Robbie Benson! He told us about meeting with Benson and his wife, singer Karla DeVito, and how they argued about how he could break into the business. NYU's experiential approach and impressive connections were made clear.
At Kalamazoo, we met the video lab instructor and one of his star students, who was researching, writing and filming her senior project. She had transferred from the University of Michigan and gave us her take on the big school-small school question.
At Purdue, the woman who would be our daughter's academic advisor spent 45 minutes one-on-one, describing what her freshman year would be like, going over the courses in her major, even finding an obscure minor that fit her interests. It was impressive for a big school.
Of course, there were some not-so-good experiences, too. Here they are, names detached.
One small school with terrific performing arts and communications programs did not have a film major. That was a major disappointment.
One college had a program so inflexible that film majors in telecommunications couldn't take animation courses in the college of fine arts.
At one school, our tour guide described how he'd loafed through his courses during his first two years, yet was still going to graduate on time. Then he described in detail the best meal plan to buy. It's better to meet students who are excited about their education.
One school was drenched in athletic spirit. That would have been fine with our son, who's a big sports fan. Our daughter wondered if she'd be a social outcast if she wasn't interested in sports.
One school lost our daughter's computer listing and failed to send her acceptance letter until we finally called to ask. A computer glitch like that can follow you for years.
We visited big schools and small schools. The big schools say, "You can make a big school small, but you can't make a small school big." At one small school, we heard the story of a student who knew her professors so well that several came to her wedding.
It's a tradeoff between the vast opportunities at big schools and the guaranteed personal attention at small schools. You can get attention at a big school, if you hustle. If you don't, you can fall through the cracks. You'll get all the attention you can handle at a small school. But they may not offer the opportunities that you really want.
What you hope for is a bit of luck: a small school with a specialty in just the opportunity the student is looking for or a welcoming community that shares the student's interests in some corner of a big school.
As we visited campuses, we tried to imagine what life would be like for our student. Looking back, the best experiences were one-on-one, talking with students, administrators or professors about our student's particular interests.
The schools where that happened climbed to the top of the list.