Every parent knows college is expensive. But what you might not have factored into your budget is the cost of visiting prospective schools, especially if your student has a big, or far-flung wish list.

A generation or two ago, freshmen often didn’t step foot on their new campus until fall orientation. But today, it’s recommended that students visit as many of their top prospects as possible. Touring schools is essential to making an informed decision about which school is best for your student, and it may also help your student win admission. Most colleges weigh “demonstrated interest” in their admission decision, and a visit - where you tour campus, meet with advisers and perhaps sit in on a class or two - is a solid sign of real interest.

If you start adding up the costs of gas, flights and hotels, not to mention meals out, a few visits can quickly ratchet up into a couple thousand dollars.

This may be unavoidable, especially if your child is set on out-of-state schools. But think about ways you can control the costs.

Start close to home. Your first visits should be to schools within an hour or two of home, which you can do on an easy day trip or even one afternoon. Visit these schools even if they aren’t the top tier of your child’s prospects. You’ll learn what to look for, the questions to ask and what qualities appeal to your child.

Use virtual tools. Most college websites have a wealth of photos, videos and sometimes “virtual tours” - check these out first.

This won’t give you the same depth of experience that you’ll get during an in-person visit, but they’ll pinpoint the areas you’ll want to explore in person, or allow you to concentrate on just a few parts of campus.

Be brutal in making your list. There’s nothing wrong with setting a budget and declaring that all visits must come in under that number. This will encourage students to really do their research and visit only those schools they’re truly intrigued by.

Plan one or two big trips. If you can swing it, plan a spring break or summer trip where you knock out several schools at once.

Get your student to help plan the route, figuring - that at most - you can do two schools in one day.

Double up. Is a close friend or cousin considering the same school?

Road trip together; you also might be able to split some lodging costs.

Or if you’ve already planned to visit friends or take a vacation near a good school, make time to visit - again, even if the school isn’t at the top of the list. You might as well take advantage of proximity.

Make trips double-duty. For younger students, consider investigating summer camps or academic programs on key campuses, especially programs where campers live in the dorm.

Your child will gain valuable skills as well as a close-up experience of what the campus might be like for a student.

Ask the school about any special offers. Often, you can get discounted or even free meals in the student dining center; special discounted rates at nearby hotels; free shuttle service or free campus parking.

In the summer, some schools even make it possible to stay in the dorms at a greatly reduced rate.

Sometimes, schools will waive your application fee if you make an in-person visit, or even reimburse part of your airfare or lodging. It never hurts to ask!


Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college adviser for 13 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through college and career exploration and the college and financial aid application processes. For more resources and information, go to www.capstoneadvising.com or email your questions or column ideas to Donna at: dspann@capstoneadvising.com.

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