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Can’t Make Your College Tour? The Campus Will Come to You.

Families with high- school students are finding novel ways to get a sense of campus; virtual-reality visits

Rachel Wolfe and Kenny Wassus | March 11, 2021 12:26 pm ET

High-school junior Bridget Rushing had long looked forward to seeing “dream school” Columbia University’s Manhattan campus. A digital slideshow of snapshots narrated over Zoom from a student tour guide’s off-campus bedroom wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.

“It’s a difficult way to feel really engaged,” said Bridget’s mom, Jessica Bradley Rushing, who watched Columbia’s PowerPoint deck alongside her daughter last month from their South Shore, Mass., kitchen.

“You don’t really get, you know, the atmosphere of New York City during a virtual tour on your laptop,” Ms. Bradley Rushing said. The younger Ms. Rushing, for her part, sees some benefits in Zoom tours, finding they make it easy to ask questions.

The spring tradition of school-by-school cross-country road trips is under way, and some families with juniors in high school are finding novel approaches to get a sense of campus. Some are taking Zoom tours, while others are experimenting with more creative university offerings, like exploring campus mock-ups in the videogame Minecraft, tasting their way through college-inspired cookbooks and strapping on Oculus headsets for virtual-reality tours.

Columbia has offered on-demand virtual tours for years on its website, but last summer the school introduced live virtual campus tours,hosted by current students, as a result of the pandemic. “Prospective families have found them to be incredibly engaging and informative,” a University spokesperson said.

The University of Southern Indiana replaced traditional walking tours with “safari-style” driving tours last June. Prospective students and their families log into a Zoom audio call before setting out from the visitor’s center in a line of cars. At the front of the caravan, the tour leader calls out the dorms and libraries to their left and rights.

The tours ended up being safari-like in more than concept, however, as squirrels that had grown “very comfortable on campus while there were no students” took to jumping out in front of the line of cars, said Rashad Smith, executive director for enrollment.

At Drexel University in Philadelphia, the admissions office has come up with a number of approaches to replicate the vibe of being on campus. Prospective students can fly around a student-built, simulated Drexel campus in the videogame Minecraft. Or they can cook their way through a Drexel Dragons spring recipe book, named after the school mascot, or order a build-your-own Lego version of the school’s Main Building, which houses classrooms and administrative offices.

The idea is to provide students with “fun, cultural things that feel like college because people are missing out,” said Craig Kampes, associate vice president for communications and marketing.

Other prospective students have taken their campus curiosity to TikTok, the short-form video-sharing platform. Some unsanctioned tours, posted by current students, have racked up hundreds of thousands of views.

One recent TikTok trend incorporates the song “Campus” by indie rock band Vampire Weekend. Students cut sweeping scenes of pastoral fields, university architecture and well-designed dorms to the beat of the song.

“A lot of them were filmed in a very aesthetic way, so you could see all the really nice parts of campus,” said Ms. Rushing, who has been going on various virtual tours from her Massachusetts home.

The high-school junior attributes her budding curiosity about attending school overseas to the TikTok videos. “I saw some from Ireland and Scotland, which I probably wouldn’t have thought about” attending, she said.

Christopher Rim, CEO of Command Education, a college-counseling company, said that for the first time he has had clients hire his team as private, round-the-clock tour guides on weeklong college trips.

One Dubai-based family flew private to New York and paid Command Education $150,000 for four days of touring, Mr. Rim said, with stops at Ivy League schools.

“If they’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on their children’s education from K through 12, they’re not going to cheap out at the last second,” Mr. Rim said.

Many more families have taken advantage of 3-D tours many schools have posted on their websites that enable users to move around campus and inside buildings.

Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., designed a virtual-reality version of campus. Students can virtually attend a performance at a performing arts center or walk out to center court while the men’s basketball team warms up for a game.

In addition, “we created a simulated building that doesn’t actually exist on our campus” for students to virtually explore, said Lisa Keegan, vice president for enrollment management. “We’re afraid people are going to come to campus and be disappointed when they can’t find the building shaped like a B for Bucknell.”

Bucknell plans to send Oculus headsets to some admitted students who don’t have the opportunity to visit in person. Ms. Keegan said the admissions office might “have to budget” for failure to return the headsets.

As for the experience of walking up and down virtual stairs? “There were moments when I felt unbalanced,” said Ms. Keegan. “I was like, ‘oh I have to make sure I’m not going to trip in my own living room.’” Her 9-year-old trying out the simulation out next to her, meanwhile, was “flying through the experience.”

Some students say Zoom tours have unexpected upsides.

“I’ve had a pretty positive experience with them,” said Eloise Rich, 17, a junior from Chapel Hill, N.C., who’s enjoyed being able to register on her own, without needing a parent to help make a cross-country road trip.

“Having the option to type questions as they come up and have them addressed later is really helpful,” said Ms. Rich, who plans on majoring in journalism. “I haven’t been on any in-person college tours, but I find it hard to imagine that you’re able to ask a question whenever.”

For Emma Veith, 18, a senior who lives in Westfield, Ind., the safari-style driving tour at University of Southern Indiana helped cinch her decision to commit there. And while she did go on several Zoom tours at other institutions, the digital experiences left her underwhelmed.

“I feel like they tried their hardest to represent the campuses as best they could on a computer screen,” she said. “They just weren’t for me.”



Originally published in the Wall Street Journal on June 25, 2021.

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