The Great College Road Trip

For parents Lissa and Frank Holland and son Dylan, campus tours came with charming guides, tuition stress—and a look at the competition. Danielle Levitt for Newsweek

"I know I'mobsessing about this," Frank Holland says, speeding down a New Hampshire highway at dusk toward Maine, trip odometer approaching 700, two campuses down and four more to go on his kid's college tour. "But didn't the guide have a cell phone? Call them! 'Girls, we're on our way, maybe put some clothes on?' "

"The least they could have done is clear off their shot glasses," says Dylan, his 17-year-old son. The high-school junior had just been napping next to me, head on his balled-up peacoat, in the back seat of the family's gray Toyota Camry. Behind us, St. Michael's College and two less-than-dressed, less-than-concerned-about-it coeds whose room we had sheepishly entered on an official tour gone awry are receding into the New England countryside at 75 miles an hour. In the front seat are mom Lissa Holland, 52, dutifully paging through The Insider's Guide to the Colleges or another of the 1,100-page door-stoppers she has brought along, and dad Frank, 52, obeying a GPS as he tries to cover as many miles as possible between us and Maine's Colby College before nightfall.

Three days have passed since the Hollands left their Lancaster, Pa., home, one family among thousands embarking on the great seasonal migration that is the college road trip. The difference is they've agreed to let Newsweek along for the ride—and their trek is more epic than most. By the time they are done, the Hollands will have covered 1,529 miles, more than half the width of the continental United States. "All," Lissa says wearily, as we trudge into a chain hotel one night after not having eaten for 10 hours, "in the service of college."

But obviously, anything normal about the college admissions process went out the window a long time ago. An army of 1.5 million students entered college last fall, according to the Higher Education Research Institute, and on the frenzied coasts 47 percent of them applied to six or more schools—roughly double the rate three years earlier. That means a proportionate rise in campus visits, which admission experts say have grown in importance for applicants trying to make schools take them seriously. Collegia, a consultancy that helps cities market their colleges, estimates that as many as 250,000 families pass through Boston each year to see the likes of Harvard, Tufts, and Boston University. At the University of North Carolina, officials have seen visits jump 24 percent this year–thanks in part to a new program offering tours to students as young as elementary-school age. And of course, as application totals shoot up, acceptance rates plummet, which only spurs high schoolers to apply even more prolifically. The feedback loop has driven the scale, and stakes, of the humble college road trip to monster proportions.

Even so, some things about this ritual will never change. No matter the miles, it remains the same sweet, awkward, love-your-kid-but-kind-of-want-to-kill-her trip it has always been. The Hollands turn out to be sane and pleasant people, well equipped to weather the riot of emotions that attend preparing a kid for college. Parents must reckon with the sadness of a child leaving home versus the joy of getting him out of your hair. The thrill of setting her adult life in motion versus the horror of paying for it. Add in parental nostalgia and teen irritability, multiply by mile after mile of bumpy road, and the Volvos and Priuses pulling into admissions-office parking lots all season long are overcarbonated little cans of drama indeed.

We met in the lobby of the Hollands' hotel in Middlebury, Vt., home of the eponymous school, on a beautiful and frigid Tuesday morning. The biggest March blizzard in the state's history had just dumped two feet of snow on the small town, stranding the Hollands here for 24 hours, and cabin fever has made Lissa even bubblier than usual. Short, blonde, and giddy, she will play the role of chief morale officer on this trip, piping up from the front seat—"Who wants to learn some things about Bowdoin!" and "Does anyone in the back have an opinion about singing?" But flighty she's not. In Lancaster, she's a librarian, and allowing a Newsweek reporter on Dylan's college tour is largely Lissa's doing. (We were introduced through a private college counselor.)

Frank, an expert in the publishing logistics business, is the information warrior, continually updating the 27-category spreadsheet in his breast pocket and peppering admissions personnel with questions about financial aid. But he is also the one most likely to voice his emotional response to each campus—noting whether the students make eye contact with each other, for example, as a measure of their happiness. A standard-issue dad in the NPR/L.L. Bean mold, and possessing perfect comic timing, Frank could be the father from Calvin and Hobbes, 11 years on.

Let's see, who does that leave? Oh, right—Dylan. He's the centerpiece of this trip, in theory, but at times he lurks on its periphery. "I think he's going to be a bloomer in college," is the first thing Lissa told me about him over the phone before we met. With his mother's blond hair and his father's wit, and the precociousness typical to only children, Dylan dresses considerably more sharply than the other high schoolers we see all week—collared shirt, sweater, and blazer, which stand out against a sea of hoodies. At home, I'm told, he does impressions and acted in his country day school's productions of Oliver! and The Tempest, but out here on the road, mulling the next four years of his life, his bandwidth is set fully to receive. In this, Dylan is not nearly alone. It's the same with every other family we see all week: the parents ask the questions and the children hang back, taking it all in.

We're not even out of the Middlebury College parking lot before the anxieties begin to manifest. A few cars down, a girl with elbow-length brown hair is quickly ID'ed as a fellow snowed-in guest of the Middlebury Marriott—"the one who had her SAT book," Lissa notes. If both the girl and Dylan get in, they can be classmates and the best of friends. Until then, she's a rival. Inside Middlebury's admissions building, as the high schoolers fill out forms, the parents size each other up, looking for class and activity signifiers—Barbour coats, say, or swim-team hoodies—to see how their children might compare.

At the same time that parents are worrying about pitching their kids to colleges, the colleges are pitching them. In boom times, schools touted luxe dormitories and high-end cafeteria food to entice high schoolers and persuade helicopter parents that they were fit to coddle their children. Today, in more austere times, reps at the information sessions at the small New England liberal-arts schools on our trip made sure to sell their career-services departments and other offices that mitigate the perceived uselessness of a bachelor's in comparative lit. At Middlebury, a lanky senior named Ben dwelled on the school's two-track admissions schedule, which accepts the bulk of a class in the fall, and then takes a second group of about 100 "Febs" in February. They graduate in that month four years later, too, "so you're not trying to enter the workforce with a horde of other graduates in May," Ben said. The high schoolers in the room are impassive, but the fathers give thoughtful frown-nods.

Middlebury is gorgeous, with big, open quads and limestone buildings that echo Yale's. The massive snowstorm canceled most classes, but not all—the cross-country ski tracks, we were told, belonged to professors who had made a point of making lecture.

Dylan's take is hard to discern, but the elder Hollands are blown away by the library's two-story mountain view and copious study-abroad options. "Wish I could go here," Frank murmurs at one point. "I'd never leave." It's the first of many times this week that he'll pine for the college years.

Next we head an hour north to St. Michael's, a small Catholic school outside Burlington. It's a little unfair to come here immediately after Middlebury. Its endowment is some $700 million smaller, and its acceptance rate is four times as high; while the college seems wonderful in its own way, the tour just can't compare, and it's here that we're led into the room of two bright, but underclothed, members of the student body. ("Preparedness of dorm room visited" soon becomes another category on Frank's spreadsheet.)

Dylan interviews with an admissions officer, and afterward Lissa and Frank press him in vain for details.

"Was it a good conversation?" Lissa asks.

"Yeah," Dylan says.

"What did she ask about?" Frank says.

"Classes, extracurriculars, I don't know?" Dylan says. "Stuff she should ask about?"

It's hard and stressful work getting into college, and getting more punishing by the year. Acceptance rates at top schools have fallen to preposterously low levels. Dylan has taken the SATs once and scored well. Really well, actually—in the 97th percentile on reading comprehension and the 87th in math. But he'll take them two more times anyway, plus the ACT for good measure. He has not yet solicited recommendations or written his essays or sat for his AP exams, and the pressure is on not to let his 3.4 GPA slip by even a 10th of a point. Dylan's overstuffed backpack, wedged into the back seat, is a hulking embodiment of what the modern high-school junior carries daily on his mind.

With his solid numbers, Dylan stands a good chance of getting in wherever he applies—he just has to show passion in areas where scores don't help, like essays and interviews. We get the first real hint of that at Colby. Dylan is quickly taken—though it's a subtle thing, and we only hear about it later—with the Georgian Revival buildings and the way the campus fits together. Frank is less swayed. "I would've jumped out a window if it were on a higher floor," he says of an off-key information session we sit in on. But he and Lissa are abiding by a rule they have set for themselves, which is to keep all opinions to themselves unless explicitly asked, so that Dylan's eventual decision is his own. As their son confers with a Colby admissions counselor, they lean in conspiratorially near the door.

Lissa whispers: "If I had an opinion—"

"Nope," Frank says, "not allowed—"

"If I had an opinion, this would be"—she's mouthing now—"No. 1."

It is impossible not to be affected by the beauty of these New England campuses, even in deepest winter, and charmed by the intellectually outrageous listings in their course catalogs. "Luddite Rantings: A Historical Critique of Big Technology." "From Vampires to the Guillotine: The Dead in European History." It also helps when your tour guide is a dead ringer for the actress Mila Kunis, as ours is at Bates. A sophomore, she leads the best tour of the week, conjuring up both the fun of life with roommates and the rigors of closely taught seminars. "If he doesn't say this is his No. 1, I'm gonna beat him with a stick," Frank whispers. "Not that I have an opinion. Or a stick." Our guide, the picture of college happiness, casually mentions the number of schools that she visited before settling on Bates: 30.

The Bates admissions house is a warm but professional place. An admissions official gives actionable tips on how to write a good Bates essay, and in the foyer there are postcards with driving directions to Colby, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, and L.L. Bean. ("We know what people want," the dean tells me.)

After a hasty lunch in the dining hall, the Hollands hit Bowdoin, drop me at the airport, and set off for Williams College. One night and 500 miles later, they finally arrive home.

There's no dénouement yet for Dylan. In fact, even after this 1,529-mile odyssey, he's not done with the campus-tour portion of the college process—another trip to St. Lawrence and Amherst is scheduled for this spring, plus visits to Elon, Sewanee, and Colorado College. Still looming is the fall's long slog of application forms and recommendations and essays and transcripts and financial-aid packets. In time, he will matriculate to a single school. It will be the end of a very long road.

Unless he transfers.