On a cold Saturday morning in February, Shawn Pelak and David Parent were at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., soon after the doors opened. But the couple, from Ann Arbor, Mich., wasn’t there to hit the books. Pelak and Parent were spending the weekend in Hartford, 45 minutes north, and after downloading a walking tour of the Yale campus from the school’s Web site, they had gotten in their car for a firsthand look.
Pausing in the entrance hall of the library, which was inspired by Gothic cathedrals, they peered up at the leaded-glass windows and vaulted ceiling. “We’re always curious about how other colleges do things,” said Parent, a management consultant, who, like his wife, graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Whenever we’re near a campus, we check it out.”
College students, you’ve got company. The grassy quads and ivy-covered buildings that attract prospective applicants also make schools of higher education enticing for those with no interest in matriculating. Visitors can partake of world-class art collections and film screenings, not to mention more unusual offerings like the burial sites of Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, on the campus of Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va. All this, without the pressure of studying for exams, or anteing up tuition.
Steve Lake, a pit boss at a casino in Las Vegas, became so enamored of the hallowed academic ambience after visiting Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on his honeymoon to Boston in 1984 that he made touring colleges his hobby. This past October, he said, he dropped in on his 500th campus. “I try to eat in a cafeteria or go to a bookstore or a game,” he explained. “I try to live in the moment.”
The schools themselves, eager to sweep aside town-gown schisms of the past, say they are happy to play host.
Stanford University — whose palmy, sculpture-dotted campus in Palo Alto, Calif., is considered one of the prettiest in the country — recently redesigned its Web pages, adding a section addressed to “Tourists and First-time Visitors.”