Saving money, and your sanity, on college visits (Hint: Resist the swag)

  • By Ann Carrns,
  • The New York Times News Service
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College application season is approaching, and that means prospective students are in the midst of campus visits.

Nearly half of students starting college in the fall of 2017 said a visit was “very important” in their decision, according to a report in April from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Seeing a college in person carries more weight these days, in part because the rising cost of college makes students and their families skittish about choosing. “You’re making a huge financial decision, so you want to be a smart consumer,” said Lisa Carlton, an education consultant in Austin, Tex.

The average cost of college — including tuition, fees, room and board — was just over $20,000 for four-year public institutions for the 2017-18 academic year, and more than $43,000 for private colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Another reason for a visit is that some colleges give weight in their admissions review to a student’s apparent level of enthusiasm, as shown by a campus tour or other contact with the institution.

“Some schools register ‘demonstrated interest,’” said Cheri Barad, an education consultant with offices near Boston and Kansas City, Kan. “That’s driving a lot of this.”

Eager students may want to see every college they hear about, but travel to far-flung campuses is expensive. Two airline tickets and two nights of hotels and restaurant meals can easily total more than $1,000, so some planning can help manage costs, counselors say.

It’s not necessary to visit every school you apply to. “Colleges do not expect families to go back and forth across the country in the application process,” said Lisa Sohmer, an independent college counselor near St. Petersburg, Fla.

But most counselors do suggest visiting a mix of college types, like an urban college, a large public university and a small liberal arts campus.

Many counselors advise starting near home. Most people, even in rural areas, live within a day’s drive of a state university or at least one private college. So start with those to create a point of comparison without having to spend a night in a hotel. Visiting doesn’t mean you have to apply. It’s just a way to gauge what you’re comfortable with.

“There’s no reason to break the bank traveling for your first visit,” said Michael B. Horn, author of a new book, “Choosing College.”

Another easy first step is to take a “virtual” tour, which most schools offer on their websites. Typically narrated by an upbeat student, the tours offer a quick look at the campus and its surroundings.

Tacking on a campus visit to family vacations, or having a student piggyback on a parent’s business trip, can help keep costs down. Sharing visits with other families — having your child tag along on a friend’s trip, and returning the favor — can also save on travel costs. If your child is mature enough to travel alone, Ms. Barad said, a one-day visit might work, saving money on airfare.

Once you have a feel for what the student likes, various online tools — Naviance is one offered by some school districts — can help narrow down the choices by matching the college’s criteria like grades and test scores with the student’s preferences.

If the college has a hotel on or near campus, that’s often a good choice because you’ll get the feel of the school and its environs, Ms. Carlton said. Many colleges have recently upgraded their campus hotels. One company even specializes in building hotels in college towns.

College admissions websites typically recommend hotels. Hotels near campus often offer discounted rates for visiting students. And check Airbnb options. “Stay as close to campus as you can afford,” Ms. Carlton said.

Some schools offer free “fly in” visits for underrepresented students, including those who are from low-income families or are the first in their families to attend college. “You could get a visit paid for,” said Belinda J. Wilkerson, an education consultant in Fayetteville, N.C.

Oberlin College, for instance, has a multicultural visit program that covers all expenses for high-achieving high school students. The programs typically are competitive, and some are offered only to admitted applicants. CollegeVine, an online college advising site, lists programs on its website.

If air travel is out of the question, try to visit a “proxy” school near home, said Vinay Bhaskara, co-founder of CollegeVine.

“It’s not a perfect match,” he said, “but you’ll get a rough idea.”

If you can afford only one visit, make it a top-choice college that values “demonstrated interest” and take the official tour. “If you just drive through campus,” Ms. Carlton said, “they don’t know you’re there.”

And be sure to sign up to attend visits by admissions representatives to your school, or talk to a representative at a local college fair: Those also count as showing interest, Ms. Carlton said, as does calling a college representative.

“The best way to show interest is to visit,” she said, “but it’s not the only way.”

Here are some questions and answers about college visits:

Q: My child wants a sweatshirt from every college we visit. Help!

A: Ms. Barad recommends avoiding the campus bookstore when visiting — or at least having a talk ahead of time about who will pay for any college swag. High school students like to collect the T-shirts and sweatshirts so they can post pictures of themselves wearing them on Instagram — and colleges are well aware of this for marketing purposes. Often, acceptance letters come with discount coupons for the campus store, she said. So perhaps you can make a deal that if your child gets in, you’ll spring for the pricey sweatshirt.

Q: How can I tell if a college considers visits when looking at applications?

A: Check out the college’s “common data set,” a pool of information gathered by groups including the College Board, an academic testing company. On the board’s website,, scroll down to search by the college’s name, find the “At a Glance” heading, then click on the “applying” tab. This will return a summary of the school’s admission criteria — grades and test scores, as well as “level of interest,” the category that includes campus visits. Colleges that take interest into account will rank it as very important, important or merely “considered.” (If it’s not considered, that criterion simply doesn’t appear.)

You typically can see the complete data set on the college’s own website. (If it’s hard to find, search online by the college name and the term “common data set.”)

Q: Is there any time when I absolutely should visit a college in person?

A: Ms. Sohmer suggests that even if money is tight, students should try hard to visit a college if they are applying for early decision, which is binding. (Early decision programs let students know months ahead of everyone else if they are accepted, in exchange for an agreement to attend.) And they should visit the college they ultimately decide to attend. In some cases, those may be the same. “The time to realize the campus isn’t what you thought,” she said, “isn’t when you show up with your luggage.”

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