By: Leslie Thatcher, Director of College Success @ Perkins
Would you buy a house before walking through it? Would you accept a job without speaking to your new boss? These big life decisions warrant in-person exposure to the people, culture, and location you may potentially choose. Your student’s college decision does, too. By visiting a range of schools, including local community colleges and distant state colleges, your student will begin to understand what makes college unique and what separates it from high school. Visiting a school can also help your student better understand the skills they will need to succeed in life after high school, when supports they have become accustomed to, disappear.
If your student has expressed interest in attending college after high school, don’t be afraid to start going on some college tours early, even freshman or sophomore year in high school. As the family member supporting your student’s journey to adulthood, be sure to join your student on these visits, listen to their reactions, and help them to ask a lot of questions, even if you, yourself, did not attend college.
There are several ways to visit college campuses:
Check out the “Admissions” or “Visit Us!” button or tab on each college’s website to begin to learn how these options are available to you. Consider how to make a visit to a college campus more accessible, as well. Read here for some tips.
While your student can read about a particular college and imagine its features, there is no substitute for actually walking across a campus, and experiencing it first-hand. Students with sensory impairments, especially those who may not be able to gather visual information about the campus, will find that this in-person experience is invaluable.
Navigating walkways, classrooms, dormitories, and having the opportunity to ask questions in real time can also be a critical wake up call for students and families.
Developing skills such as O&M or self-advocacy may need more attention. Walking the paths of a campus, hanging out (when safe) in a student café, or chatting with someone in the Disability Services Office all bring a college campus to life and help you and your student understand the leap from high school to college – and what it means for your unique situation.
Beyond these experiential benefits, a visit to a campus can help begin to demystify just WHAT college is. It’s NOT high school. These campus experiences help a high school student, possessing little experience outside of their own school, gain greater understanding of what “college” really means. College life is hard to imagine without that lived experience on a college campus, even just for a tour. A visit can help a student begin to understand if it’s the best next step for them, and begin to understand the real difference between high school and college.
Exploring college campuses also encourages students to start considering the skills they’ll need to manage the campus independently. Often, college visits will provide topics for important discussions at home, and with teachers, or the IEP Team, about the need for greater independence in travel skills, academics, social engagement, and self-advocacy.
Beyond this, a visit to even one local college can help your student understand the academic life of the college. General graduation requirements, different types of majors, and available electives show your student the culture of different campuses. For a high school student, this can be many things: exciting, inspiring, intimidating, humbling. Expressing all of these feelings is important. Your student is building an authentic understanding of what “college” means so they can align their goals with reality.
On the most basic level, the simple act of getting in the car and driving to a college campus can give you and your aspiring college applicant a chance to understand how far they will be from home, and what that distance means for them. Then, students can better consider the benefits of commuting from home to college, or the option of living independently in a campus dorm. Keep in mind that some colleges require living in a dorm for at least a year, and sometimes more.
College tours will also offer you a chance to learn more about your child — their preferences, interests, and long term goals. Let them take the lead, even if they are quiet. Encourage them to prepare for the college visit, exploring the college website for general information. Perhaps starting a list of questions for each college might help your student keep track of their questions. This will help them brainstorm questions they might ask on the tour, or when visiting the Disability Services Office (DSO). Let your student take the lead on this; once they’re in college, they’ll be expected to do so with professors and peers each and every day.
What you’ll find, after a few visits, is that enrolling in college can look different for every student.
It can start slowly, one or two classes at a time, or after a student’s participation in a blindness skills training program to increase O&M skills, technology skills, or independent living skills. There are also very popular and effective training programs that may help your student gain the independence and blindness skills to help them more effectively tackle the demands of college, before enrolling in college. (Check here for some ideas on this front!)
On a campus tour or in an Admission Information Session, consider….
This may also be a fair time to address the social distancing measures that may impact a traditional campus visit. Since March 2020, with campus closures and new guidelines for in-person contact, many colleges have been providing virtual visits and have made time and space for question and answer forums; others are providing socially distanced, shortened in-person tours. And, while some campuses have been essentially “closed” to visitors altogether, many still welcome walkthroughs, even if entering buildings is prohibited.
Try to be flexible in how you learn about the college. If possible, sign up for a virtual tour and establish contact via phone or email with someone in the DSO to ask your key questions. Doing so will move your understanding forward, regardless of whether you are speaking in person or virtually.
If you can get to the campus in person to explore the physical space and atmosphere, stop a few students to ask about their experience. Current students love to share what is happening on campus, and conversing is a great way to learn more and go beyond the brochures. Better yet? Walk the distance from the dining hall to the freshman dorm. Check out the distance between classroom buildings.
Your student will be able to put themselves in the shoes of a future college student and they will have even more tangible information that can inform their decisions.
Whether you’re taking the traditional college visit or a virtual or informal one, a college visit can help increase understanding about what college is, and what it is not. It can help clarify what skills your student needs to develop to increase their success in this setting. Most importantly, they will learn about and begin planning for the differences between high school and college. Take the opportunity to offer your student time and space to learn, experience and reflect. Check out this article about the many options after high school. Doing so can lead to more informed, thoughtful decisions about future steps after high school.