Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Open Houses and Captive Kids

It’s “Open House” season at community colleges.  It’s the time of year when students who applied to four-year schools have received word (and word on financial aid packages), but haven’t sent in their own decisions yet.  For students who didn’t get what they wanted, either in terms of admission or financial aid, community college can suddenly be an appealing option.

Open House events make for some amazing people-watching.

Brookdale’s involves a brief opening plenary, followed by plenty of time to meet faculty and staff from various programs in the arena.  It’s sort of like a science fair, but the teachers are the ones doing the displays while the students walk around with their parents.

At the plenary, I was surprised at how many high school juniors were there.  Given the time of year, I would have expected the crowd to be almost entirely seniors.  But the juniors were probably half of the crowd.  I took that as a good sign.  At this point, seniors may be up against the clock, but juniors really aren’t; if the juniors are showing up, it’s because of actual interest.

The real action was at the booths, in the arena.  

The faculty were at their best, which was great to see.  They got to brag on their programs, sometimes bringing visual aids to attract attention.  (The creepiest were the life-size cardboard cutouts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the Poli Sci table.  They’re genuinely unnerving.)  The Culinary folks cooked food, which reliably draws a crowd.  The Psych folks brought brains, leading to a steady stream of zombie jokes.  

Even better, though, the faculty are savvy enough to know how to deal with Captive Kids.

The Captive Kid scenario involves parents who are interested in their kids doing program x, while the kid either wishes she were someplace else or really wants something very different.   Typically, the parent makes the initial approach.

Parent: My son is interested in your program.

Prof (turning to the student): Great?  What would _you_ like to know?

In their defense, the parents are often still in high school mode.  They haven’t necessarily made the shift yet.  In many cases, the students haven’t yet, either.  But we know that at this level, it’s about the student.  If the student is sending a powerful nonverbal “this is not for me” message, the savvier faculty pick up on it quickly and subtly redirect the student to something she cares about.  A student who actually wants to be there will be far more successful than one who doesn’t.  But that involves distinguishing what the student wants from what the parent wants.  Making that shift is a process, rather than an event, and it starts at Open House.  

Seeing that many faculty bragging about their programs and reaching out to prospective students -- sometimes past their parents -- is a real treat.  And seeing students perk up when they realize that they’re actually being heard is even better.

Yes, it was on a Sunday, and yes, it was beautiful outside.  But it was worth it.  Here’s hoping some of those juniors come back next year, a bit more confident and a lot more inquisitive.