Making college visits more affordable
Posted September 12, 2016
For many families, September means the start of college and, with it, the responsibility of paying tuition and other expenses.
But for families with kids in the last years of high school, it’s also time to start visiting colleges of interest — and, with that, learn about the accompanying expense of a higher education.
On the one hand, visiting a school can prove beneficial as it gives a prospective student a firsthand view of the institution and some schools look favorably on applicants who display the enthusiasm to visit campus (the going moniker is “demonstrated interest”). The downside is travel costs, accommodations and other expenses begin to pile up from those on-site inspections even before tuition and living expenses kick in.
But there are strategies families can employ to trim the time and expense of school visits.
One major financial drain in the college visit experience is a piecemeal approach — one trip to check out one school, another to investigate another and so on. To help hold down that expense , look to “bundle” the trips whenever possible, placing nearby schools on the same itinerary to cut travel and lodging expenses.
“Make a road trip out of college visits,” said money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. “Find several colleges that your child is interested in visiting within driving distances of each other and plan a road trip to cut travel costs. Try to get as much in within a shorter time period so you take less time off of work, too.”
Another option is to add on school visits to a planned trip, such as a summer vacation. But, cautioned experts, since the summer months deplete student populations and related on-campus activities, it may be hard to get a genuine feel for a school that’s off session. Ultimately, if a student enjoys a summertime visit, a second trip during the school year may be necessary.
Once an itinerary is in place, the next challenge is arranging affordable lodging. One option is on-campus accommodations for the student in the group.
“It’s best for the kid to do an overnight at the school, since that will give them a better taste of what the college experience will be like,” said Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s and Frommers.com, a travel guide publisher. “That’s always free, and for the parents it could mean the ability to book a smaller hotel room.”
When choosing a place to stay, take college-recommended accommodations with a grain of salt, added Frommer: “Yes, they’ll be convenient to the school, but sometimes they’re pricier than other lodgings in the vicinity, since the college is sending them a steady stream of guests. Do your own research.”
Additionally, suggested Deb Felix of Felix Educational Consulting, investigate Airbnbs in the area. They can often be less expensive than a conventional hotel and provide more homey environment after a day’s tramping around campus (not to mention any insights about the school from your hosts).
If visiting a school mandates air travel, do some legwork in advance. Woroch suggested pricing both one-way and round trip flights from multiple carriers and searching secondary nearby airports to see if you can get a better deal: “This strategy also enables you to apply reward miles to one leg of the trip if you don't have enough to cover the cost of a round-trip ticket,” she added.
If a school is relatively close, don’t assume that driving is the cheapest way to go. For instance, Amtrak offers a buy-one, get one half off ticket to families visiting colleges.
“In some cases, this could be cheaper than driving, when you take parking fees into account,” said Frommer.
Don’t be shy about asking schools for any help they may be able to offer. Look to see if a school offers reduced hotel rates, complimentary meals in dining halls and other freebies or price breaks.
Lastly, don’t take it as a given that a thorough college search naturally mandates visiting dozens of schools in person. Instead, Felix urged students and their families to do basic legwork through online virtual tours and phone conversations with current students, admissions officers and academic departments to gain a feel for which schools are of genuine interest.
“Wait until you have been accepted and visit only your top three choices during admitted student days instead of beforehand when the college list is longer,” she said.
Jeff Wuorio lives in Southern Maine, where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at email@example.com, and his website is at jeffwuorio.com.