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A road well-traveled

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“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by” is a well-known quote from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Every fall, college admissions representatives gear up to find not the road less traveled, but rather the road that legions of admissions officers have taken before them that leads to innumerable high school and college fair locations. Much like folklore, admissions travel information is handed down the generations to ease the way for new admission officers.

A recent email conversation with several veteran admission personnel brought up a host of changes in the past twenty or so years that have affected the way admission counselors travel. For those who have been in admissions for too many years to count, this may be a trip down memory lane. For those newer to the profession, you may wonder about the archaic means we employed to complete a successful recruiting trip.

For the well-traveled admission officer there was the ritual of handing off a recruitment territory. This usually included passing on a thick folder filled with notes about the specific area. Besides directions, lists of high schools and fairs in the region, it often included notes about which counselors were nice, which needed special handling, and where the cleanest truck stops with coffee, a snack and possibly a pay phone were located. Prior to my first admission road trip, Tom Meicho, former Linfield College dean of admissions, sat me down and while flipping through a travel-worn little black book (no kidding) proceeded to give me advice guaranteed to make my first foray into college admission travel as smooth as possible. He was considered the “Yelp!” of his day by most of his colleagues.

Planning your travel meant getting out your trusty Thomas Guide or AAA map. Blythe Butler, associate director of college counseling at Catlin Gabel, remembers when using travel agents to book airline tickets and AAA guidebooks to find suitable hotels were the norm. The best maps and guidebooks were those used previously by other admissions folks as they had left their comments and notes. When Megan Diefenbach, college counselor at Holy Names Academy, passed her maps on to the newest admissions counselor she felt as if she was passing on a valuable family heirloom. It may be just me, but there was something special in the well-creased AAA paper maps that were handed to me when I inherited a new territory. The highlighted routes or “X” marks the spot of the high school gave me confidence that I would find my destination. It was with some trepidation that I would buy a brand new map, as it didn’t have all the special markings of those well-used ones.

Though maps were helpful, some small towns didn’t have detailed maps so you had to use local landmarks. Looking for football stadium lights was the surest way to find a high school. Lisa Knodle-Bragiel, director of admissions at Linfield College referred to them as “beacons of learning.” Other landmarks included looking for the water tower in small upper- Midwest towns or seeking out the bright yellow school-house traffic signs. Michael McKeon, dean of admissions at Saint Mary’s College of California, remembers frequently pulling into gas stations to ask whether he was near the high school (and occasionally being directed to a high school he wasn't scheduled to visit). Searching frantically for the nearest pay phone to call a high school letting them know you would be late or driving the route the night before to make sure you could find your way were also common to pre-GPS travel.

We had to look up hotels and locations in either guidebooks or phone books, get tips from other travelers or the high schools. Eric Pedersen, associate vice chancellor for enrollment services at the University of Alaska Anchorage, reminisces that usually the only “to-go” coffee was to be found at a truck stop. You had to balance the cup between your legs or drive with one hand as the rental cars didn’t have cup holders. Finding a place to eat was a total gamble sometimes, too. Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at University of Oregon boasts “Now, I could sit on my smart phone for five minutes, and find or book a hotel, and find the best place to eat -- boom, done! “

Flying then and now are totally different worlds. Ed Schoenberg, former vice president of enrollment at Otis College of Art and Design and current college counselor at Bellarmine College Preparatory, recalled TWA's "Flying Deli's". “On coast to coast flights on 747's the upper level was used to serve a deli buffet. You cruised up there, filled your plate and then went back to your seat to enjoy New York deli delights. The best you can usually do these days are the nuts on Southwest.”

Communicating while on the road was quite different as well. Staying in touch with the office meant calling in everyday, not reading your email on your smartphone while driving between school visits. We often had to use the phone in the counseling center of a high school to call in to the office and check in before it closed, or use a pay phone and your school calling card. Email didn’t always exist, but if you did have it, checking email in a high school or public library computer lab once a day or even once a week was sufficient. If you were out on the road more than a week, sending back your inquiry cards by mail so the office staff could start the data entry was also standard procedure.

The visit itself has changed. Rarely do admission reps use heavy material bag to schlep their school wares, now all they need is a laptop or tablet for showing off the campus. Jim Miller, former director of admission at University of Wisconsin Superior and current college consultant, recollects that slide carousels were used for viewing campus photos. Eric Delehoy, independent educational consultant, remembers using video cassettes highlighting the college. Admissions counselors gave speeches without the aid of multi-media to guide them through their presentation.

As usual, Michael McKeon’s philosophical musings really hit home and summed up some of the underlying changes to the profession itself. “I remember it as a time when you met students, if they were interested in your school, and you actually allowed them to thoughtfully work through the process without hounding them with emails, promised automatic discounts, social media intrusion, phone calls, and other manipulative strategies. But, I began in admissions just as the era when we were gatekeepers was coming to an end and before vendors took over the process.”

He also mused that, “after completing four or five high school visits you could actually go to the movies, go out for a nice meal, go to the beach (Long Island) or on a hike or to a museum, and actually get to know the territory in which you were traveling. There was no voice mail; there was no email. Now I find that I head back to my hotel room, log in and hours pass and I realize I need to find a meal and then think about getting some rest for the next day.”

While admissions travel may have been more cumbersome in some respects twenty years ago, in other ways it could be argued it was a much more humane way to recruit students. Whether we like it or not, technology has made admission travel easier in some ways and more difficult in others. For all the admission travel warriors who will hit the well-traveled roads this fall, safe travels and keep sane!

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