Q: We're traveling from Tennessee to Colorado for a reunion. My husband and I didn't go to college, but we want our two daughters to have this opportunity. We hope to visit colleges en route to inspire them. One will be a freshman and the other will be starting middle school. Is it too soon for them to visit colleges?
A: No, not at all. Weaving college visits into a vacation is a great way to give your daughters a snapshot of life on campus without the pressure of applying.
"It's never too early to open kids' eyes to the potential of college," says Jose Ruben Olivares, the principal at Think College Now, a college-focused public elementary school in Oakland, Calif.
Visits ignite what Olivares calls "college knowledge" -- setting goals, thinking about careers and developing study skills to get grades required for acceptance.
The secret to inspiring your daughters is keeping the visits short and informal.
"Don't pack the trip full of tours where your middle grader listens to a stream of data such as what the average GPA of the incoming freshman class is," says Sally Reed, an editor at College Bound (www.collegeboundnews.com), a resource for guidance counselors and parents. "Your goal is to whet their appetites and show them the range of different colleges. That's best done by short visits, researched ahead of time so you can hit the hot spots, and move on."
Where to start? Using a current college guide, find schools along the way that excel in subjects of interest to your daughters. Call the admissions office. Are facilities such as a music hall, pool or student union open to visitors? Are student-led tours offered? What events are scheduled while you're there? Many universities have summer programs for high school students; speaking with peer participants might interest your daughters. Research alumni: Who attended that the girls have heard of?
Let's say you're headed across I-70. Check out the University of Missouri at Columbia, a great college town. Sheryl Crow, Jon Hamm and Kate Capshaw are alumni. Mizzou's campus has a botanical garden with 42,000 plants and trees. The university offers degree programs in 280 fields. Its Columbia enrollment is just north of 33,000.
Compare that to Stephens College, also in Columbia. This small, women's residential institution is known for individualized attention in fields of film, design, theater, interior design and equestrian studies. There's even pet-friendly housing if your daughter doesn't want to leave her kitty behind.
Those two stops alone will show your girls the choices open to them. Just remember that it's a vacation to open eyes and see possibilities, says Reed.
"Don't talk about grades, test scores, SATs and applications," she says. "Just enjoy the campuses."
If you have a good experience, stop at the college bookstore. Get a pennant for a bedroom wall or college sweatshirts for your daughters' soccer practice.
"We have banners from nearly every college in the nation on our school's walls," Olivares says. "These daily reminders encourage students to aspire to college."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)