The Campus Tour: No Longer Only a Stroll Around the Grounds

In the name of comfort and saving time, some colleges are putting visitors on wheels

Jeremy Fleming, Furman University

At Furman U., in South Carolina, campus tours include a 45-minute ride in an eight-passenger golf cart, driven by a student guide.
July 29, 2013

People complain when their feet get sore, the University of North Texas has learned. For years, when visitors were asked what they disliked about the campus tour, the resounding answer was: all that walking. Parents didn't like trekking around in the heat, and they weren't too keen on the cold either.

There had to be a better way, North Texas officials decided, to show off their 884-acre campus. "It was like a death march trying to get from one end to the other," says Jennifer McLendon, the university's visitor-experience manager.

So three years ago, North Texas bought two 14-passenger electric trams, which can go up to 20 miles per hour. Now the tour has two parts: Guests walk through the heart of the campus, and a tram takes them around the perimeter, stopping several times along the way. The open-air vehicles have hard tops that block the sun, and in the winter, when temperatures can dip into the 30s, clear plastic flaps cover the sides.

North Texas is one of at least a dozen colleges that in recent years have adopted a walking-riding hybrid for tours. With buses, vans, golf carts, and Segways, today's campus visits often rely on wheels.

Comfort is one factor. Campus sprawl is another. Vehicles like those at North Texas are motorized symbols of a building boom still under way. For many years, colleges have been expanding their acreage and multiplying their square-footage, erecting dorms, theaters, and fitness centers—shiny, expensive structures that presidents deem mandatory stops on a tour. But those buildings are often on the edges of campuses, which means more distance to cover, more steps to climb, and—whew!—more winded parents.

And grandparents. Like many colleges, North Texas has seen an increase in older visitors. More and more large families (Hispanic ones, especially) are coming for tours, and sometimes three generations board a tram. "The older visitors definitely appreciate it," Ms. McLendon says.

Wheels can save precious minutes. Most guests have only so much time to spend on a campus, especially if they plan to visit more than one that day. "You want to keep them on schedule," says Rebecca Eckstein, vice president for enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University, which started using vans about three years ago.

Touring Ohio Wesleyan's 200-acre campus in an hour had long been a logistical challenge (it's shaped like a barbell, Ms. Eckstein says). And that was before the Meek Aquatics and Recreation Center opened. With its 10-lane pool, the building is a must-see, yet taking families through it adds at least five minutes. "We had more things to show them, but we didn't want it to take any longer," Ms. Eckstein says.

So now, visitors walk from the admissions office to the other side of the campus, and a van brings them back. The 20- to 30-minute driving tour includes the soccer field, fraternity houses, and the back of the president's house (driving by the front was less efficient).

As at North Texas, two student guides lead Ohio Wesleyan's tour. One drives, the other talks.

'That Golden Opportunity'

Anyone who thinks of trams or vans as glamorous recruitment tools is missing the point. So says Jeff Kallay, chief executive and a founder of Render Experiences.

North Texas, Ohio Wesleyan, and many other colleges have hired Mr. Kallay as a consultant to improve their tours. As campuses have grown, he knows that so, too, have American waistlines. A long walk, he has told clients, can be tough for people who are obese or out of shape.

Yet the number of sites seen and acres covered also relates to the intangibles of choosing a college. Mr. Kallay has recommended riding options to help reveal more of a campus's features—and, in turn, more of what students experience there. "It's about creating a feeling that matches the price point," he says.

Brad Pochard agrees. When he came to Furman University as director of admission five years ago, he learned that just 51 percent of high-school seniors who visited the campus ended up applying—well below the percentage at peer institutions.

Back then, visitors got an hour-long walking tour of academic buildings. But they saw relatively little of Furman's lush 750 acres. The tour bypassed the lake, bell tower, athletics facility, and housing for juniors and seniors. Walking to all those spots wasn't possible on Furman's spread-out campus.

"We were missing out on that golden opportunity," says Mr. Pochard, now associate vice president for admission. "With the price tag we have, we have to show the value and the amenities."

Furman has since revamped its tour, which now features both walking and driving legs, each about 45 minutes. Mr. Pochard persuaded the university to invest in six eight-passenger golf carts—white with purple trim, Furman's colors—that allow the tour to cover much more ground.

Tour guides, who also drive the golf carts, get lessons in which they are reminded to make wide right turns. Aside from a few scrapes and the occasional smack into a curb, the students have steered the carts without incident. "We tell our tour guides not to turn around," Mr. Pochard says. They are not expected to fill the driving time with conversation.

The expansive new tour has impressed applicants, officials say. Last year 68 percent of high-school seniors who visited applied, a significant uptick from five years ago.

Not every college can mechanize its campus tour, and perhaps many would not want to. Even small vehicles come with big questions. How much will it cost to insure them? Does the campus have enough driveable walkways? And what is the college's liability if someone gets injured?

Ms. McLendon, at North Texas, has considered the risks of riding tours: "You're putting a $17,000 vehicle in the hands of a 20-year-old."

Innovation brings new challenges. Adding the trams required North Texas to limit its tours to just 14 people. So if all the seats are taken, "walk ins" without reservations can no longer join a tour at the last minute. They get a walking tour instead. "It gets awkward," Ms. McLendon says, when they see other families riding the tram.

Even a comfortable ride won't make every guest happy. Although visitors at North Texas no longer complain about walking, many still lament not seeing the football stadium, which is across Interstate 35.

If nothing else, vehicles whisking visitors across quads affirm that recruitment has many facets. Most tours appeal to the eye, but when wooing future tuition-payers, it may help to consider their feet, too.