Firm gives real look at colleges

The Baltimore Sun

In the new Disney film College Road Trip, a hyper-suspicious, over-protective police-chief father portrayed by Martin Lawrence takes his long-suffering daughter on a costly road trip to visit the college of her choice, Georgetown, which is halfway across the country, instead of the college of his choice, Northwestern, which is just around the corner.

I say costly because the price tag for the trip includes a demolished police cruiser, bus tickets, including one for a pet pig, hotel bills, including the tab for a wedding reception demolished by the pig, and sky-diving gear.

And the trip almost costs the emerging adult daughter, played by Raven-Symone, and her overly sentimental dad their loving relationship.

The price is nearly as high for regular parents who might use the coming spring and Easter break to take their high schoolers to visit colleges the kids think, for reasons that are never very clear, they might like to attend. There's the airplane tickets, hotel rooms, meals, rental cars, gas, parking and time away from work. Not to mention the parent-child agitation a trip in service of this momentous and hugely expensive decision might generate.

Why not just pop in a DVD instead?

New Jersey college counselors Cliff and Sami Kramon have produced a library of more than 350 college tours - they literally followed the student guides around with a video camera - that can be purchased for $15 each - less than the price of breakfast for two on the road.

"We don't want to kid anybody," Cliff Kramon said in a telephone interview. "This isn't some kind of MTV-style movie with music background and scenes that change every six seconds.

"This is exactly what you get on the tour."

You get about two hours' worth of the chatty tour guide, the outside of classroom buildings, the sample dorm room, the library, the student union, the rec center and the football stadium. You get the students between classes on bikes and skateboards, Greek row and an intramural volleyball game.

But you also catch a glimpse of the mountain backdrop to the University of Colorado and hear the tour guide talk about the ski buses that leave every weekend. And you see the camping equipment that is available to the students at the University of Oregon.

"This isn't meant to replace the campus tours on the colleges' Web sites or the Fiske Guide to Colleges or Yale's Insider's Guide to the Colleges, said Kramon.

It is just another tool in a decision-making process that has exploded beyond the wildest imaginings of both parents and college administrators.

The Universal College Application and the Internet mean that students can apply to many more colleges than just the "safety school" and "reach school" of the past. The average high school senior applies to 10 schools today, up from six or seven just a couple of years ago. There are colleges sorting through 30,000 applicants for as few as 2,000 freshman spots.

Those numbers are reflected in the orders for Kramon's Collegiate Choice Walking Tour videos (collegiatechoice.com).

"The typical order is for five colleges. A lot of people order 10 or 20. We have had as many as 40. But they had twins," said Kramon.

Kramon does more than simply film the boilerplate college tour, although that's the purpose of his DVDs. He films the towns in which the colleges are located.

"And I say, 'This is downtown Kenyon College. This is downtown Grinnell College. And this is it.'"

Most seniors have no frame of reference, beyond name recognition and high school chatter, when deciding what colleges to visit. These videos can help by showing the ambience of a college with 2,000 students compared to that of a college with 40,000.

What does a women's college look like? What does a New York City college look like? What about one in rural Ohio?

"If you have a techie who wants to look at MIT and Cal-Poly, this is a painless way to do it."

And the decision between in-state and out-of-state college tuition can mean $100,000 to $140,000 over four years, said Kramon.

"All the colleges have virtual tours on their Web sites," Kramon acknowledged. "Those are promotional. Ours is more like war footage."

The videos save not only money, but time. When both parents are working and the student is hip-deep in sports, school work or extra-curricular activities, there is little time left to tour six or eight campuses.

"The tour guide at Dartmouth told us his first look at Dartmouth came on the first day of classes. He'd simply had no time to visit," said Kramon. "It doesn't have to be that way."

And just so you don't miss a thing: Each college tour video begins with a montage of frustrated students and parents at an airport terminal.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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