The Return of the Campus Tour

Colleges say that, with changes, they can be operated safely. But many colleges are staying virtual.

August 3, 2020
 
University of Toledo

During the last week, numerous colleges announced that they will start the 2020-21 academic year online, with some or all students barred from campus. Many of these colleges were reversing decisions they had made earlier. The National Association for College Admission Counseling announced that it was starting virtual college fairs, in which college representatives can meet with high school counselors.

Want to visit Harvard University or Stanford University or the University of Michigan or the University of Notre Dame? There are plenty of digital options to see the four campuses and learn about their programs. But with the coronavirus pandemic continuing, there are not in-person tours. So too is the case at hundreds of colleges and universities.

But in the last month or so, the campus tours have come back -- albeit with new rules to preserve the safety of visitors. Colleges say that students want to visit their campuses and they are filling up the tours (although the capacity limits are lower than pre-COVID-19 tours).

To be sure, most college are not restoring tours, concerned about student safety. But some are, with various rules to protect visitors.

The College of Wooster has an FAQ for in-person tours. Visitors are asked to call the admissions office after they park, but not to come in.

Other information: "Your tour guide will meet you at your parking spot. They will provide a tour overview, asking all staff and guests to walk at least six feet apart. Wooster representatives and guests are required to wear masks while on campus. Currently the tour will only include one building interior, a residence hall (which is currently not in use), so guests can see a typical double-occupancy room. We are trying to reduce contact for all individuals. Please also bring your own water bottle."

Most visits are one family only, and there is no place on campus to eat. But an admissions interview is possible.

And handshakes? "Per social distancing guidelines, we discourage personal contact. Don’t worry, we won’t interpret the lack of a handshake as rude! Air high-fives are welcome."

Like the other colleges in this article, Wooster still offers video tours.

Collin Palmer, director of undergraduate admission at the University of Toledo, said his institution started offering tours on June 22 and has been very pleased with the results.

Toledo cut the number of tours from 11 (before COVID-19) to eight a week, and limits those on a tour to 28, whereas 40 to 60 people used to be the range.

Of students, he said, "they are looking for an opportunity to be on campus."

Palmer said he sees a "competitive advantage" in having tours. Recent visitors have been from Columbus and Cleveland in Ohio and from several places in Michigan (Toledo is near the border).

In talking to his colleagues at other institutions, he said he feels that the most competitive institutions are less likely than others to start visits. But he feels that students who come are getting the experience they want.

Toledo asks all students who visit to fill out a form answering various questions, including one about whether they felt the tour was safe. One hundred percent have answered that they did feel safe.

Tulane University also has tours. Satyajit Dattagupta, vice president for enrollment management and dean of admission, said via email, "We have four-five prospective students per day attend on-campus tours. We have limited tours and visits to 12 people per tour. The room where the tour groups convene prior to embarking on the outdoor tour is set up for social distancing and plexiglass barriers have been installed around the admissions welcome desk. All visitors and counselors must wear face coverings. Visitors do a symptoms check and fill out a form attesting that they do not have symptoms. Tour guides are mic’d so guides and visitors can all maintain social distancing while still hearing guide."

The University of Alabama also offers in-person tours. So does Texas A&M University.

At the University of Saint Joseph, in Connecticut, admissions staff started planning contactless tours on May 20 with a start date of June 8. More than 60 prospective students have visited.

"The feedback from the students and families who have visited to date has been very positive," said Diana Sousa, a spokeswoman. "Students and parents report that they enjoy being the only family on each tour and the personal and COVID-compliant aspects that go into the tours, such as designated meeting times with student financial services, the touchless feature of the guided campus tour and simply being able to safely visit the campus during these unique times."

Face masks are required for all -- and the university gives out face masks and hand sanitizer at the start of the tour.

At the University of New England, in Maine, officials at first restricted in-person visits to Mainers, then expanded to Vermont and New Hampshire, and then to anyone.

Reservations are required, and only one student (or family) at a time can attend. Check-in is outside (in a tent). There is no introductory presentation. And everyone must wear masks.

Scott E. Steinberg, vice president of university admissions, said people are coming and "the feedback we have received has been very positive."

Like the University of New England, other colleges have expanded what they are doing with tours.

Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, said tours started June 1, with one family at a time, but four tours a day, just to exterior locations. They added a guide two weeks later and added four interior sites.

"We show families about a five-minute video of our residential spaces since we can't take them into the residence halls," she said.

After July 4, three families have been permitted on each tour.

Since June 1, there has been only one day without visitors. "Families have been compliant with our requirements to remain socially distanced and wear masks at all times," she said.

The University of Southern Indiana started car tours of the campus in June. Rashad Smith, executive director for enrollment, said that 67 families have taken the tours, and they continue to get requested even with the return of in-person tours. Initially, the tours were requested by rising seniors, but now college officials are hearing from juniors and sophomores.

Since the live tours have started, the university has had 147 reservations for them, and 92 have attended.

The requests for drive-through tours have decreased since fully in-person tours have been brought back, but they have not disappeared.

Gil Rogers, executive vice president of PlatformQ Education, which helps college set up virtual programs for campus visits, said there's no question that "there's a lot of pressure for institutions to go back to the way things were" with tours and everything else. There is a belief that a good campus tour "will seal the deal," he said.

But he said that he is hearing more interest in digital programs. "Things have flipped," he said. With travel limits (imposed by states or colleges), the primary way to reach students this fall will be digital. "Health and safety need to be taken into account," he said.

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