For most of his 17 years, Jordan Alexander has thought of Covenant College as the place he and his family "go to sled when it snows."
But his perception of the Lookout Mountain liberal arts school changed after Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts held its senior class retreat on the Covenant campus. In exchange for a free venue to accommodate their group meeting, the 70 CCA students, including Alexander, took a campus tour and got information from speakers representing admissions and financial aid offices.
Although it wasn't the college experience Alexander says he's looking for -- the clarinetist plans to audition at Eastman School of Music and Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio -- the campus visit did change his perception of Covenant.
"The representatives were intelligent and kind, but I was mostly impressed with the school's dedication to strengthening their Christian faith and utilizing each major to do so," he says.
And, even though Alexander doesn't plan to attend Covenant, the visit was a success, says Sarah Malone, Public Education Foundation college and career adviser at Center for Creative Arts.
"Kids who have never stepped foot on another campus don't know what's out there, don't believe college is for them. I believe if a student can actually visit a campus, then the opportunity of going to a post-secondary program becomes more real to the student," she says.
Introducing students to the diversity of colleges available, broadening their outlook on post-secondary options or just letting them experience a day in the life of a college student are behind the growth in a new form of college recruiting: High school class visits.
College visits aren't new; a campus tour by a prospective student and parents has been standard procedure for decades. But busing an entire senior or junior class to campus has only become the norm in the last couple of years, say area admission counselors.
The group tours are seen as mutually beneficial. The high school group gets a free venue in which to hold its senior retreat or class meeting, a complimentary meal and sometimes a T-shirt. For students whose parents can't take off work to make a college visit or who don't have the money or transportation to drive to a college, a group visit removes those obstacles.
For college admissions offices, group tours bring prospective students to them, giving them an opportunity to showcase their campus, get their name out, have their representatives explain admissions and financial aid procedures and answer students' questions on what the school has to offer.
"If we can get someone to campus where they can see what it's all about, see who we are, where they fit in, then we think we have a good chance of getting them to Lee," says Phil Cook, Lee University vice president for enrollment.
Admissions directors say they don't have hard numbers on how many students in groups later apply or enroll, in part becausetheir names aren't always collected as they are during visits from prospective students who come in one at a time. But they say the number of group visits has been rising in recent years, an indication that the trips are worthwhile for the school.
College admissions directors are competing to fill freshmen classes just like high school seniors are vying for admission.
"I would say 'competing' is an accurate statement, but competing is more of a sports word. This is 'recruitment'; it is 24-7 for us," says Cook. "We are always looking for an edge to tell students the Lee University story. There is nothing that can replace face-to-face interaction of students on campus to see if they can see themselves at Lee."
Cooks says he has seen a "noticeable increase" in the last two years in the number of groups visiting campus, and Lee now averages four to five groups a month.
"We had more campus visitors last year than in any year in our history with more than 2,600 unique visitors," says Cook. "That does not include our open houses. That was individual families and group tours."
He believes the increase in group tours can be attributed to "high school counselors who are more proactive. They understand and see how important a college education is."
Lee Pierce, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga director of admissions, says her campus has hosted group tours for some time, but "the amount of groups coming from outside this area has increased in the past three years."
Pierce says her office averages two group visits per week every week of fall semester. In October alone, she already has 700 people (groups and individuals) scheduled for visits.
"The group tours are a good situation," she says. "We are looking for a way to make sure seniors come on campus, so they hold their senior meetings here. We give $10 vouchers to students so they can eat in the university center.
"School counselors like it because kids get to experience what campus looks like on a normal Tuesday or Wednesday. We like it because it brings students to us, we can give them a tour and give them the UTC experience."
Center for Creative Arts' Malone says she took the school's junior class to UTC last month for a class meeting.
"UTC gave us a free meeting place in the Student Center and provided campus tours. Eric Farmer from Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. spoke on financial aid and about filling out the FAFSA, and a UTC counselor talked to them about transcripts and what they needed to focus on this year to prepare for college."
Katherine Logan, assistant director of admissions at Dalton State College, says the school doesn't bring in high school classes one at a time, but instead hosts an annual college fair as well as a few specific tour days attended by several high school senior classes.
"They will tour the campus, meet with admission and financial aid representatives and get a feel for Dalton State," she says.
Aaron Porter, Bryan College director of admissions, says "exposure" is the goal of hosting whole classes.
"It gives students a chance to be on campus and experience the atmosphere, which they couldn't if they weren't on campus," he says.
At Bryan, Porter has expanded the group-visit theme at the campus in Dayton, Tenn.
"One group coming is a debate team. We offer our facilities to hold their competition on campus and, while they are here, we take advantage of the opportunity to give them a campus tour," he explains.
"We are going to take a group of high school students to Italy. But before we go, we are going to give them a chance to come on campus for an orientation, tell them about Bryan, let them stay overnight and eat an Italian dinner. We expect 20 to 25 high school students to be on campus then go to Italy for that fine arts class."
Summer camps for high school students are the newest and biggest area of growth in group recruiting, Porter adds.
"Fort Bluff Camp in Dayton has lots of camps over the summer. Kids come from all over the country to those camps. We drive vans up to Fort Bluff, pick up students and bring them to campus where we'll hold a scavenger hunt and feed them pizza," he says.
"Last summer we hosted three Fellowship of Christian Athletes camps for the first time," bringing more than 1,500 students who stayed on campus," he says. "We definitely promoted Bryan during the days they were here."
While recruiting students is the primary motivation for group visits, the result can be life-changing, say admissions officers.
"We are getting the chance to prepare students for their future," explains Cook. "That's not some vague reference; we believe we are getting a chance to change their lives and open their minds to what higher education can provide."
Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...