Across the country, high school students are busy planning college visits in order to winnow their wish lists before senior year applications.
"It's important to visit while classes are in session, and to pay attention to what's going on in the classroom (and) outside of the classroom," advises David Porter, social architect, consultant to colleges and universities throughout North America and author of "The Porter Principles," a guide to college success through social engineering (www.porterkhouwconsulting. com).
"What are the wholesome opportunities for socially rich student engagement and study on-campus? What extra-curriculars are offered and how accessible are they? What does the college paper reveal about campus issues, concerns and opportunities?"
One often overlooked feature is the structure of campus dining, Porter said.
"Many universities require freshmen to live on campus for the first year because administrators know that students who live and dine on campus have higher GPAs and higher graduation rates than those who don't. A properly socially engineered dining-learning commons is central to the day-to-day lives of all students living on-campus and is crucial for face-to-face social networking and study with fellow students," he said.
"But these same universities often fail to realize that student dining is as much - even more - a factor in developing a sense of community and predicting future success. This is the centerpiece of 'the classroom outside of the classroom'."
He offered these suggestions for evaluating campus dining commons:
Is there a centralized dining hall or commons, or are food locations scattered? A dining-learning commons is the living room of the campus, a place where students come together and pause long enough to meet, talk, make friends, see and be seen, relax, study and collaborate.
"These are all vital not only to bonding but to learning how to socialize with fellow students from a wide variety of backgrounds in a neutral environment," Porter said. "That provides once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to develop and nurture valuable networking skills for their personal and future professional lives. If the meal plan encourages them to scatter across campus - or go off campus - to pick up fast foods eaten in isolation, vital opportunities are lost."
What are the hours of operation?
Students live on a different clock than most of us. For many students, 11 p.m. is the middle of the day.
Is the dining-learning commons open, thus respecting and being conducive to their (not our) lifestyle? If so, does it offer more than microwave pizza and hot dogs? This will offer a social and safe on-campus environment, Porter said. "If the place isn't open when they're hungry, they'll go elsewhere."
How far is the dining hall from dorms and the academic core of campus?
"I once consulted with a university that was mystified about why two dining halls got lots of student traffic, while the third - the most beautiful - was largely ignored," Porter said. "When I visited, I discovered the dining hall had been built on top of a rather steep hill on the far edge of campus. The location offered great views, but the climb was a bear."
Dining halls should be within easy reach of both dorms and classroom buildings in the academic core or students simply won't use them.