College visits can help families find the right fit for their children, but as with other aspects of college planning, it’s easy to go overboard and spend thousands of dollars that might be better put toward tuition bills.
A more considered approach can help families contain the costs of college visits while still benefiting from "feet on the ground" tours, college consultants said.
It’s better to visit fewer colleges well,” said Steven Antonoff, an independent education consultant in Denver.
The first step is to take advantage of local resources. Visiting a variety of nearby campuses, even if the student has no plans to attend, can give the family insight into what different types of colleges are like. A big public university will have a different atmosphere than a small liberal arts school; urban campuses will differ from suburban and rural ones.
Families can take all the steps consultants suggest for their "real" tours down the road: attending official information sessions and guided tours but also branching out on their own to talk to students and professors about what life at the school is actually like.
The next step is to take advantage of all the low-cost and free ways to research schools, including college guides, virtual campus tours on sites like YOUniversityTV and the videos about campus life that many colleges post on their YouTube channels.
Once the student compiles a "want to apply" list of schools, families can begin to plan which to visit. There are a number of ways to reduce costs, such as:
Appending college visits to family vacations
Sending one parent instead of both to schools that require a plane trip
Carpooling and sharing hotel rooms with other prospective students
Planning trips geographically, so you’re visiting all the prospective schools in one area rather than making multiple trips.
Organized tours that take the student, rather than the whole family, to multiple campuses also may save money.
Still, there may be some visits that just aren’t practical for a family’s budget. A family that lives in Boston may skip the college in Wyoming.
Many parents don’t realize that while a nearby school might hesitate to admit a student who hadn’t visited, the rules are different for colleges farther away.
It’s also OK to visit a school only after you’ve been accepted, Antonoff said. Those visits can be the most productive of all.
"After students are accepted, they really are much more serious about the 'fitting in' factors as opposed to the 'getting in' factors," he said.