As tuition and other higher-education costs have soared in recent years, high schoolers need to be more careful than ever in making sure they choose the right college, where they’ll spend four years and a lot of money.
According to the College Board, for the 2022-23 school year, the average published tuition and fees for full-time undergraduate students was $10,940 at public 4-year in-state schools. For undergrad students attending 4-year out-of-state colleges, the price tag averaged $28,240. Meanwhile, the average cost for undergrads at private 4-year non-profit universities was $39,400.
Choosing which school to attend can have many long-term implications, including how many career opportunities graduates will have, as well as how much student debt they’ll end up paying off for years to come.
But in the immediate term, prospective students need to figure out where they might want to attend college. That process typically involves a tour of college campuses to get a feel for what student life will be like.
Taking time off work for multiple costly trips can be difficult for educator parents. Doing some research upfront can help you and your high-school-age student narrow the list of options and get the most out of a handful of campus tours.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the different aspects of college campus tours to help you fit them into your schedule and budget:
- Deciding which campuses to visit
- Planning when to visit campuses
- Finding ways to make campus trips affordable
- Exploring the campus and beyond
- Weighing experiences and options
Deciding which campuses to visit
The first step in your decision-making process is to evaluate your options and narrow down your list. Visiting lots of campuses might sound like fun, but it’s hardly practical.
It’s smart to start thinking about this before your child’s senior year in high school, says Peg Keough, education director at College Aid Pro. In fact, starting during their high-school freshman year isn’t too early, she notes, but only if they’re interested and eager to get started then.
Virtual campus tours can be a big help, especially if you really can’t afford to visit a lot of different towns.
Old-fashioned networking helps too. Encourage your child to talk with people who are knowledgeable and well-connected. For example, a high-school counselor can help guide their choices and often has contacts to admissions officers.
Students also can ask adults in their lives—such as their teachers, relatives, friends’ parents, and others whose opinions they value—where they went to college and whether they would recommend going there.
Many colleges have alumni clubs that you can contact, especially in big cities. Online chats and student newspapers at colleges also can help provide a feel for student life.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling sponsors several college fairs in various regions, both virtual and in-person, where students have a chance to meet representatives from many schools.
Even though college costs have soared in recent years, don’t automatically rule out pricey colleges. For example, a private college that seems out of your budget might offer needs-based and merit financial aid, Keough says. That could potentially reduce the cost to be on par with a state school.
College Aid Pro has a tool that tells users what financial aid is available while matching against other desirable criteria. Limited use of the tool is free, but a relatively small fee unlocks the service for unlimited use. Those willing to splurge can hire a college expert to navigate their choices and even accompany the family on a campus visit.
>> Get additional information on finding more money for college, deciding how to pay for college and tips to pick the right student loans for you. Plus, see what gap financing is available to NEA members.
Planning when to visit campuses
Once your student has done their research and narrowed down the number of colleges they want to visit, then you can begin planning your travels—where you’ll go and when, how you’ll get there, and how much it’ll cost.
Most colleges have resumed in-person tours as the Covid-19 pandemic abated, although there still may be some restrictions on visiting classrooms or staying overnight. Research your options when planning your trip.
Timing is critical because students will want to visit campuses far enough in advance of application deadlines.
Many high school students start visiting college campuses in the spring semester of their junior year, after they have narrowed their search to their top prospects. This timing can coordinate well with your own spring-break schedule in your district. That’ll make it easier for you to travel for several days visiting colleges with your child.
Or, you can incorporate colleges visits into family summer vacations, when you’re already out of school. During the summer, when many students are back home, you often can roam around campus. Be sure to call ahead if you want to meet with any students who are still there.
The downside of campus tours during summer is the overall cost. It’s the most popular time for everyone to travel, so airfare, hotels and more can take a bigger bite out of your budget. If time and money both are tight, you might need to cross a campus or two off your travel wish list.
Another option is to tour in late summer or early fall before many application deadlines. You might be able to squeeze in a visit during the time between when your own school resumes for the fall semester but after college students have arrived on campus for their new school year.
During the school year, your own schedule may make it challenging to find a substitute and be away from work for even a few days. If possible, schedule trips on weekends, three-day weekends and school holidays. Even short well-planned visits can provide your child with a clear impression of campus life.
Finally, coordinate your visit with the schedule in your destination. It might be best to avoid times during big events, such as homecoming or rival games or events in the surrounding town. This influx of visitors might take up all the available lodging, or significantly increase prices due to high demand.
Finding ways to make campus trips affordable
In addition to timing your visit around your availability and other factors, you also must consider your travel budget.
Traveling on a tight budget requires thought and planning. Start by setting an overall budget for college visits. This may limit the number of schools and locations you can go to, which is why it’s important to narrow your choices early in the planning process.
When budgeting, include all the costs you’ll incur. These can include airfare, lodging, car rentals, meals, keepsakes, and other local excursions.
You can drive to schools that are relatively close, but you’ll need to fly to those further away. If you drive, be sure to include gas costs. For longer trips, add in all expenses associated with overnight stays. Visiting several colleges on a single trip can cut down travel time and expenses, vs. traveling to each one on separate trips.
For flights, avoid peak times like summer or weekends if possible to save money. Use your reward points from credit cards not only for a flight but for the hotel. Check to see if your credit card offers any perks, such as an annual reward night, or the ability to earn rewards on your travel bookings.
Companion passes—buy one, get one free—such as those on Southwest Airlines can let your child fly free. Don’t forget to factor in baggage fees to your total costs.
Car rentals have gotten more expensive, so include that in your budget, especially if your lodging is far from campus or the airport. Parking fees on campuses can be high, so consider alternatives such as ride-share services or mass transit. Include those costs in your budget.
Some schools allow prospective students to stay overnight on campus for a more immersive experience. Whether or not you’re able to arrange for your student to spend the night in a dorm, you’ll need to find off-campus lodging.
If you book a hotel, make sure any payment or deposit is refundable, in case your student changes their mind. If you’re using reward points, book as far ahead as possible to ensure more availability (and, sometimes, use of fewer points).
Some colleges will offer free lunch, but campus meals usually aren’t expensive. Plus, sampling the food available for students is a smart idea.
Evening meals can mount up, though, especially as restaurants raise prices due to inflation and labor shortages. If dining out for multiple meals out will be too costly, consider whether a hotel room with a kitchenette and microwave and plus buying some groceries would be a more cost-effective option.
Another option: Check out home-sharing sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, which may provide a cheaper alternative, be more conveniently located near campus, and give you the opportunity to prepare a few meals in a kitchen.
Whether driving or flying, give some thought to what you pack. Check the weather forecast, and include cold-weather clothes if necessary. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, especially if you’re visiting more than one school.
If flying, consolidate your luggage and carry-on to avoid overage fees.
Some schools do offer all-expenses-paid visits, so it’s worth a call to see if any of your child’s prospective colleges offers that perk. Another cost-saving idea: Only visit schools once your child has been officially accepted.
>> Be sure to check out what great rates you can find on a variety of travel needs, including hotels, rental cars and airfare, thanks to your NEA membership. In addition to deals that can make these trips more affordable, you can also earn Travel Dollars to use on future bookings. You could use them on additional campus trips or even your family’s summer vacation plans, including cruises if you’ll be near a port city. Also, check NEA Discount Marketplace for restaurant certificates, luggage, comfortable shoes and more.
Exploring the campus and beyond
Once you and your student are on campus, you’ll want to soak in as much information as possible.
If school is in session, your child could try to attend a class in a subject they’re interested in and talk to the professor if possible. This is especially important if your student is considering a particular college because of its reputation in that field.
Scope out the facilities related to your child’s academic interests, such as a great science center and a comprehensive library. If they plan to live on campus, check out the quality of the dorms, including room sizes, heating and cooling, and lounge areas.
To get a sense of the location and what life is like there, Keough suggests asking students on campus what they do on the weekend.
Student safety, both on and around campus, has become a big issue, so ask questions about precautions, crime stats and other important information. Schools are required by law to release information about crime on campus or the surrounding area.
A group visit can also be useful, says Robert Rummerfield, who set up College Visits in 1991 and has been leading prospective students on campus tours ever since.
“We try to expose them to as many different schools as possible,” says Rummerfield, who takes groups of about 20 high school students, usually in their junior year but sometimes even sophomores.
Sometimes, he says, “you see the light bulb go off” as a student realizes they have found their dream school. Other times, prospective students realize that a school they had seriously considered actually isn’t right for them.
Talk with someone at the financial aid office when you visit to find out more about assistance options that might be available to help you cover your costs to attend. At the placement office, get details on how many graduates typically find jobs after graduation that correspond to their course of study.
Be sure to venture beyond campus, too. If your child may end up living off campus at some point during their college years, explore the local neighborhoods to see what kinds of housing options could be available.
Take time to tour local sights and get a feel for life in the town surrounding the college. If your trip will be short, scope out local attractions before you leave home so you can maximize your time around town. Look for spots that will be important to your child’s college experience, such as restaurants, shops, gyms, educational resources and more.
For locations and events that require admission fees, check for deals through the NEA Discount Tickets Program.
While touring the campus and surrounding locations, take photos and notes so it’ll be easier to remember your impressions once you’re back at home.
Some experts recommend devising a scorecard that rates various aspects of college life, such as dorms or food, to make comparisons easier. You could start this evaluation exercise during your trips, or you can wait until you return home.
Weighing experiences and options
After your whirlwind campus tours, your student will need to evaluate their trips to consider how they feel about each college visited. This gut-check will be one of their deciding factors, so it’s best to review and evaluate soon after you return home, while the trip is still fresh in your mind.
Academics weigh heavily when choosing a school, but so do location and intangibles such as “vibe.” Review your notes, photos and impressions, and take all these things into account when evaluating choices.
College rankings are a popular tool, but don’t rely solely on how a school scores when making decisions on where to apply. “I’m not a big advocate of rankings,” says Rummerfield, who believes students can be successful regardless of where they attend and graduate from. “There’s a school out there for everyone.”
If you’ve run the numbers and feel like the price tag is too high—and the likelihood of getting scholarships or hefty loans is low—think about splitting the difference by breaking up the college experience.
“Don’t forget to look in your own backyard,” Rummerfield advises. “There can be a very good school near home.” For example, your child might consider attending a local community college for the first two years to save money, then transfer to another university to complete their studies.
A college visit can convince your prospective student that this institution is perfect for them. If they feel strongly this is where they want to attend, you could encourage them to apply for early decision or early action, if that’s available.
Early decision is binding, but applying for it can be a vote of confidence in the school that tips the scale in favor of admission. Early action is not binding, but your student would need to get their application in sometime in November and could expect a response by December, January or February.