My younger daughter has been shopping for a college for three years, and in that time we have visited 10 schools. That’s a lot of tours and a lot of talks from admissions counselors and tour guides whose job is to put the best face on their schools.
You can learn a lot in those sessions, but a better barometer of a school, I think, is the student newspaper.
So, the first thing I do when we arrive on a campus is to seek out the school paper.
Picking up a newspaper wherever I go is a lifelong habit that goes back to childhood, when my dad, who did a fair amount of traveling, would bring home the paper for me from wherever he went. Seeing those papers helped me understand that there was someplace else in the world besides where I was.
In the case of college visits, picking up the newspaper helps me understand the campus in a way a tour guide can’t or won’t.
- What is happening on campus? Is there crime? Who’s making news—and why? Is it an active place? What speakers are coming or have been to campus? Who is performing there? I like the idea that my daughter will be someplace vibrant, thought-provoking and, of course, safe.
- What is being reported? Is the newspaper a PR vehicle for the school, or is it a newspaper? That is, do the students report on the university’s issues? No place is perfect, but if the newspaper tries to suggest otherwise, I know the school is hiding something. And I’m always impressed by administrators who respect free speech and are not afraid of a newspaper that reflects its school’s culture, warts and all.
- How well do the students write? Can they put together a complete sentence? Tell a story in a coherent manner? As a first-time reader, can I understand a story about an issue that has been ongoing? The quality of the newspaper doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the education at a given school – in fact, the best school we visited ratings- and reputation-wise had the most turgidly written, awful newspaper. I still think it is a great school, and I would have been thrilled if my daughter had gone there, but the quality of its newspaper did add a touch of tarnish to its golden dome.
- How well do the students think? Do the students care about the arts? Do “minor” sports get attention, or is everything geared toward football and basketball? Based on what is covered in the paper and how it is covered, I can tell what the students think is important. I look to the editorial page to see whether it’s filled with grousing, with praise or with a healthy mix of the two.
- Is the newspaper readily available? We’ve been to some schools that no longer have a printed paper. That always makes me suspicious that the school is hiding something. We’ve been to some schools that had stacks upon stacks of unread newspapers. That tells me that the students are disinterested.
In the end, my daughter—who isn’t coming to Butler because we don’t offer exercise science as a major, which is what she wants to study—chose a school with a newspaper that I found to be generally well-written and thorough. The students write clearly and thoughtfully, and the newspaper appears to be an accurate reflection of the college. I will be surprised if she ever picks up her campus paper, but I’m looking forward to reading it for the next four years.