Jun 29 2022

Q&A: Showcasing the On-Campus Experience on The College Tour

Veteran television producer Alex Boylan and his partners are using student stories to bring college campuses to life without costly in-person visits.

Alex Boylan’s two decades in television have taken him to all kinds of exotic places. After winning Season Two of the reality show The Amazing Race in 2002, Boylan embarked on a career as a producer for what he calls “travel adventure shows” that has taken him across continents.

But the inspiration for Boylan’s latest project struck much closer to home.

A few years ago, Boylan’s niece was touring college campuses, a rite of passage for high school students for generations. However, as Boylan came to learn, his niece’s in-person options for college visits were tightly limited by geography and money, with families now spending between $1,000 and $3,000 per visit, according to a recent U.S. News and World Report estimate.

So, to experience what college could be like at universities from coast to coast, Boylan and his niece went online. They discovered that what higher education institutions offered for virtual college visits varied widely, and that what was available didn’t fully showcase all the benefits of campus life.

All of that, Boylan says, provided the inspiration for The College Tour, a TV show available for free on Tubi, Amazon Prime Video and at thecollegetour.com that features student-led tours of colleges around the U.S. with a focus on what the campuses are really like.

As The College Tour enters its fifth season and surpasses 100 episodes — each featuring a different campus — Boylan sat down with EdTech: Focus on Higher Education to talk about the show and why the in-person college experience still matters in a world increasingly dominated by remote and online learning.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Check out this year's list of 30 higher ed IT influencers to follow, including Alex Boylan.

EDTECH: After going on a series of in-person college tours with your niece, you both began looking for virtual tours of campuses. What did you find when you went looking for that content?

Boylan: I started helping navigate this world online, and each college, each university does an amazing job at marketing and telling their stories, but from an outsider’s perspective, it’s extremely challenging. How do you find the vibe? The culture? All those intangibles of a university, and each one of them tries to do it in a different way. Some have glossy commercials, some have user-generated content, some have just a lot of copy to read. It’s a lot to get through.

Fortunately, my producing partners and I, we’re television producers, and that’s when the lightbulb went off. I thought, “Higher education needs its own TV series.” The reason is that this next generation, or even someone older who is maybe upskilling or advancing their education, it’s hard for them to see outside their own world.

When you can see where you want to go, it’s a lot easier to start creating that path to get there. The College Tour is helping that.

LEARN MORE: Virtual tours expand opportunities for future higher ed students.

EDTECH: You’ve made college students the primary voices on this show. Why did you decide to tell these stories through students’ eyes?

Boylan: You need this to be relatable. I think The College Tour is the first time where we’re getting peers to talk to peers. Students at 19 or 20, they can relate to someone who’s 16 or 17 in a way that someone older will never be able to do in a million years. The most important reason we have it like that is to keep the authenticity of the story. Each one of these tells a story.

Think about it: When you’re in high school, who do you look up to? College kids. Getting those two demographics to speak to one another is really important to the show.

EDTECH: One of the challenges today is convincing students to physically come to campus with so many remote options available. What are you hearing about why the college experience is still worth it?

Boylan: That one word right there: the college “experience.” I think we bring that to life in a way that’s never been done before, and I think it’s so important. It’s funny, my niece was one of the top students in her class. She’s one of those students who thrives in education, who is going to go on to college, and one of her first questions just sitting around chatting one night was, “Is it worth it?” So, that conversation is out there in the marketplace.

The answer, and I think you get this feeling when you watch The College Tour, is that this is not an investment in four years of your life. This is a 40-year investment in your life. These are going to be your best friends, this is what’s going to open you up to opportunities and experiences. There’s no way you’re going to get that sitting behind a computer in your parents’ house. It’s just night and day. I think that’s what The College Tour is telling people. It’s showing you those intangible experiences and that growth that a college student is going to have while being on the brick-and-mortar campus while going to school, and I think it’s more important now than ever.

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One thing we talk about all the time, and I hear all the time: The campus location is going to probably mean something to you for the rest of your life. Ask anyone who went to college. All of this bottles up in this college experience, and I think the show is resonating and telling that story.

EDTECH: How do you approach colleges and universities about doing the show? What have you told administrators to get their buy-in?

Boylan: We consider this a coproduction. It’s not like The College Tour walks in and we say, “Here’s the episode on the University of Connecticut, thank you very much.” We’re in lockstep with that university. There are so many things that go into it before we even set foot on location, lots of details that need to get ironed out in order to be able to pull this off.

We’ve been getting feedback from Season One, which has been airing the most, and it’s really interesting. It’s really inspiring. Because the colleges and universities talk about the fact that their yield is up, their melt is down, applications are up. And not only that, there’s this intangible sense of “we just made an episode on our university,” and so that starts engaging alumni even more.

I wish we could say we’re geniuses, that we thought about that, but this was a very simple idea: Let’s tell an authentic, real story to the next generation. We’re able to bring that institution to life in a way that’s probably never been done like that before. And I think that the results ripple in all kinds of ways.

READ MORE: How to ensure quality virtual campus tours for everyone.

EDTECH: You mention the show has resonated even more than you expected. Why do you think that is?

Boylan: Timing in life is really important. I think we were coming at a very interesting time, when schools were challenged. The challenges my niece faced, all these schools were dealing with it.

I’ve created a lot of shows, but this is the first time I’ve ever created anything that was based on a problem that I dealt with. I think that’s key, because if I’m having that problem, there’s millions of other uncles and aunts and moms and dads dealing with this same problem.

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