Rural vs. Urban College Campus Visits

A College Visit to a small-town, rural campus should focus on different factors than visiting a bustling city campus. Here’s what to know for both.

On a college visit, once you’ve visited the student union, listened to the requisite admission lectures, walked through the quad and toured the dorms, you have an idea of whether or not a college will work for your child. Now, it’s time to get off campus and learn what that university town is really like, whether your visit is to a traditional college town like Ames, Iowa, in the heartland, or to the bustling streets of busy Boston on the East Coast.

The Student Perspective

My sister, Elizabeth Cleaver, knew what she wanted in a college for herself when she started visiting campuses—a good photo department and an active scene. She toured the Parsons New School campus in New York City and Ohio University in rural Athens, Ohio. From a destination standpoint, the two couldn’t be more different. “Coming to New York is really overwhelming,” she says, no matter what you’re there for. Athens is another world altogether, she adds. Elizabeth and our dad quickly maxed out the campus tour and tiny downtown. Driving a few minutes off campus was disappointing—not a restaurant or movie theater in sight.

The take-away from her experience: If you incorporate a family trip into a college visit, make sure you budget your time appropriately for each place.

Still, campus visits, to even the most rural of colleges, can be made into a family getaway, if you’re open to diving deep into the local scene.

Touring the City Campus

Walk around urban campuses and the surrounding neighborhoods to get a feel for the city and the area, and to figure out distances from the grocery store to the post office, or from the dorms to public transportation. For your visit, you’ll gain a sense of what the city feels like, and your child will quickly learn just how easy it may be to fill the dorm-size mini-fridge or medicine cabinet.

After touring the neighborhood, take advantage of being in a big city by visiting the museums, local theater scene, restaurants and landmarks, and by getting a feel for the landscape. Whatever city you’re in, touring places that your child might not want (or be able to afford) once they’re at school—shopping M Street while touring Georgetown’s campus in Washington, D.C., for example—is a good way to incorporate unique experiences into the campus visit.

Double your entertainment value if you can. Major cities, it seems, are always hosting special activities and events. Check the city’s Web site, and local newspapers—including any free alternative weeklies—for information about events and festivals; that way, after you’ve checked out the cafeteria fare, you can head out to food and music festivals for a real taste of the city.

Touring the Country Campus

Rural campuses often have a culture all their own. Check the campus Web site to see what’s happening while you’re visiting and get tickets for any sporting events, college theater productions or other unique happenings. You may be surprised at what a small university downtown can offer. Check the college or community paper to see what’s going on in the local scene. If it’s a Big Ten school, try to visit on a game weekend—you’ll get the full flavor of how football can transform a quiet campus into acres of giddy, tail-gating Hawkeyes (University of Iowa).

Enjoy the scenery during the drive in. If you’re surrounded by farmland, it may not be the best place to plan on exploring the great outdoors, but if you’re headed to a campus that’s in the heart of the mountains or in the middle of the woods, it’s worth taking the time to hike, bike or ski.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, deciding between urban and rural, says Cleaver, boils down to “what kind of person your child is.” Big cities are good for meeting lots of people who aren’t necessarily college students, while rural campuses have more sorority and fraternity options. Big cities can be overwhelming; small towns can seem dull in comparison. Whichever college your child chooses, be it a rolling, pastoral scene, or bustling urban hub, taking advantage of the surrounding area will allow you to know you got the full experience (and a long-weekend away to boot).

Destinations: New York City, Athens, Chicago, Washington

Themes: College Visits

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

Good tips... These are so true, but it's hard to fit all that in to a weekend and sometimes it takes mulitple trips to absorb it all!