How to keep college visits from breaking the bank

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Hanna Horvath, CFP®

Hanna Horvath, CFP®

Managing Editor & Certified Financial Planner™

Hanna Horvath, CFP®, is a certified financial planner and former managing editor at Policygenius. Her work has also been featured in NBC News, Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, CNBC, Best Company, and HerMoney.

Published September 27, 2019 | 3 min read

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Part of the college application process is taking a trip to see the campus. High school students, with their parents in tow, can tour the grounds, browse the bookstore and attend a sports game before making the decision to apply.

“I think visiting a college is the best way to understand the college, including the culture, the size and the feel,” said Mandee Adler, founder of International College Counselors.

But college visits aren’t cheap. Depending on the school’s location, parents could end up paying hundreds on airfare, hotels and transportation to and from campus — not to mention all the school swag. Here’s what you need to know about the financial burden of college visits.

Does visiting a college really matter?

With tuition on the rise, choosing a college is a big financial decision.

“It’s like buying a house,” said Adler. “It’s one thing to see it online but another to see it in person. It’s best to take a look before you buy.”

A homeowner typically wouldn’t offer a down payment without visiting the house and exploring the neighborhood. Students should consider seeing the campus and surrounding area up close before committing to a school.

“This decision is going to affect your kid’s life for the next four years, and beyond,” said Vinay Bhaskara, co-founder of CollegeVine, an educational consulting company.

Colleges often place a greater weight on campus visits when reviewing a student’s application. More than one-third of colleges consider “demonstrated interest” a moderate to considerable factor in admitting a student, according to a 2018 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

You won’t get denied from a school for not visiting its campus, but some schools “look fondly” on students who do, said Adler. Distance also matters. A candidate who visits from across the country will seem more eager than one who comes from 20 minutes away.

How to make college visits easier on your wallet

Adler recommends starting the process as soon as possible. If you’re going on vacation in an area with a college, make a pit stop. If your child is looking at a couple of neighboring schools, combine the visits in one trip.

Consider visiting local schools first. Even if a specific school isn’t on your kid’s list, they’ll get a better sense of what’s out there. Visiting a mix of colleges can help your kid develop likes and dislikes.

“For example, if you’re in New York, you can visit a school in the city to get a feel for what an urban school is like, or visit a local public school to get a feel for what a large school is like,” said Adler.

If there’s a specific school your child wants to visit, travel with other families to get a group rate on travel and hotel accommodations, said Adler. If you’re able to take time off work, Bhaskara recommends visiting a campus in the middle of the week. Not only are airfare and hotel rates typically cheaper, your child will get a more accurate depiction of what that campus is like.

“Do it instead of visiting during holiday breaks or on the weekends,” he said. “You’re much more likely to see the actual students on campus interacting with their work and activities.”

Some schools also offer vouchers and fly-in programs for minority and low-income families. Parents can learn more about these programs online. Can’t make it? Prospective students can typically take an online tour of the campus.

If traveling to the school will be a big financial hit, it may be a good idea for your child to take their college search elsewhere.

“If they end up going there, they will have to fly regularly back and forth,” said Adler. “I don’t recommend choosing a school where you go into debt just to get there.”

Looking for a college adviser? Here’s how to find one that won’t get you arrested.

Image: Phillippe Giraud