Columbia begins on-campus tours for a limited number of families

By Noah Jennings, Staff Reporter

In March, Columbia’s Department of Undergraduate Admissions reopened its doors to a select number of prospective students who signed up to tour the school. Sofia Felino

Updated Tuesday, April 6: The college has opened 33 new tour slots from April 12 to April 30 and opened registration for 33 tours per week after National Decision Day through September 4.

Kendall Hodge took a tour of Columbia as soon as she was able, although the college’s procedures looked different from other college tours she had taken.

Hodge, a high school senior from Florida, was one of about 175 prospective students who registered to tour the college in-person under its new COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

Since the start of the pandemic, prospective Columbia students and their families have relied on technology to visit the campus virtually, rather than physically visiting the college like they have in the past. But recently, that changed for some students like Hodge.

“[The tour] made the idea more real in my head that this was a place where I could really go and see myself being a student there,” Hodge said.

In-person tours of the campus for prospective students began on March 15 with new safety protocols in place.

Tour groups now include the tour guide, the prospective student and up to two guests of the student, as opposed to tours in the past containing several families with one guide.

Every visitor must also take a rapid COVID-19 test on campus 30 minutes prior to their scheduled tour, and to complete the tour, the results must be negative. The test is paid for by the college.

The tours do not allow access to any of the student housing buildings, and standard Columbia community safety guidelines, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, apply at all times.

Derek Brinkley, assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions, said all tour slots prior to May 1, which is National Decision Day, were filled in the first three hours after registration opened on March 8.

This left many prospective students and parents disappointed, including Piper Ruth, a high school senior from Colorado.

“I’m not quite sure where [Columbia] is on my list of colleges,” Ruth said. “It’s still up there [in my] top three, but it’s just hard to know if I don’t know the student body and the buildings.”

Ruth’s mother Tina Ruth said she does not feel comfortable investing money into the college without being able to experience a tour.

“It’s like that show they have on TV where you don’t meet your fiancé before you marry him,” Tina Ruth said. “This is almost a quarter of a million dollar investment in her education. Who would just put that down on something that you don’t have a really good feel for and haven’t been able to visit one or two times?”

Brinkley said the college made five tour slots available per day, five days a week from March 15 to April 30, meaning 175 students in total could tour the college prior to decision day.

There is a waitlist available for a tour in the event that a family cancels, but Brinkley said he does not envision many people canceling.

Hodge said she enjoyed visiting the Theatre Department in-person the most during her tour.

“I definitely was super surprised with what [the college] was like,” Hodge said. “It’s going to make it a very hard decision for me.”

From Sept. 1, 2018, to Aug. 31, 2019, the last full recruitment cycle before the pandemic, 8,718 prospective students attended some form of on-campus event, including 3,289 students who took tours.

Brinkley said the reason for fewer tour opportunities is for the safety of the tour guides, families and the Columbia community.

“My primary goal was to make sure that students stay safe,” Brinkley said. “Yes, I want students to choose Columbia … but I don’t want to put [prospective] students, families, our students, our staff [or] our faculty … at risk for catching COVID just because we want to get tours up and running on campus.”

Brinkley said there are still virtual opportunities for prospective students to try to get a feel for the campus without taking an in-person tour.

One of these opportunities is available through the Columbia Visits app. Families can “walk around” campus through augmented reality technology in the app. They can point their device at campus buildings to identify the building, get information about it and see photos of its various rooms and spaces.

Students can also use the virtual tours site to watch videos about specific areas of campus as well as schedule a student-led virtual tour or a Q&A with an admissions counselor.

Emily Caldara, a high school senior from Lindenhurst, Illinois, took an in-person tour of Columbia. While Caldara took a tour of another college before the pandemic, she said her experience at Columbia was better, even with the safety measures in place.

“It was just as immersive [and] just as informational,” Caldara said. “It was everything I could’ve gotten out of [a] pre-pandemic tour.”

Tina Ruth said she and her daughter tried the virtual opportunities, but those did not fill the void left by not being able to be on campus.

“It’s a huge investment to be willing to send my daughter across the country to a place that we’ve only walked outside on the street once,” Tina Ruth said.

Hodge said students and parents who were able to schedule a tour should not take the opportunity for granted.

“You have to keep your mind open and be excited about being able to even experience something that others are not able to,” Hodge said.