Make the Most of a Campus Tour

If you have a high school junior or senior this year, start working campus visits into your family's travel plans to get the lowdown on your future investment. We show you how to keep down the cost of your visits and detail 20 questions to ask about

Choosing a college is probably your child's biggest financial decision he or she will make up to this point in life. The school will be the place your child calls home for four years, and you'll probably shell out more than $100,000 for that college education. With so much on the line, it makes good sense to move beyond the guide books, Internet sites or hearsay to research your investment firsthand -- with a campus tour.

Taking college campus tours with your high school junior or senior is a good way to zero in on top choices and make sure the school is a good fit academically, socially and financially. It allows you both to walk the halls, talk with current students and get a feel for the surrounding neighborhood in a way you can't by flipping through a course catalog or guide book. And summer may be a good time to make the rounds while your son or daughter is out of school.

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Hold down the costs

Paying for a college education is expensive enough, but you really should make room in your budget for a trip to at least one prospective college. Whether you choose to visit one or several schools, travel can get downright pricey, though, especially if the campuses are far from your home. Consider these six tips to keep your visits affordable:

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  1. Whittle down the list. Before you start planning campus visits, your child already should have made a prioritized list of needs and wants, researched different schools online and come up with a short list of top contenders, ranked in order of interest. See our ranking of the 100 best public and private colleges for schools that'll satisfy both a student's desire to learn and the parents' desire to get the most for their money.
  2. Travel with a friend. If you'll be driving to your destination, share a ride -- and gas costs -- with your child's friend interested in the same school. Plus, with two heads asking questions, you're less likely to forget to ask about something important.
  3. Plan your family's summer vacation destinations around prospective schools. Granted, your kids' first choice of a summer vacation probably doesn't include a trip to a college admissions office. But by making a vacation out of it and working in some fun and site seeing, you can save money by combining your family getaway this season with a college tour trip.
  4. Lump visits to nearby schools together. That way, you can visit two or three in one long weekend. Even renting a car at one destination and driving a few hours to a second could be cheaper than booking two separate trips.
  5. Consider visiting in the fall or spring when travel costs may be cheaper than summer rates. This nets you another benefit too: The school season will be in full swing, helping your child to see what it's really like on campus, instead of the sparsely populated, laid-back atmosphere of the summer semester.
  6. Take a virtual tour. If you simply can't make the trip, many colleges and universities provide video programs about their schools on their Web sites. But another, less biased choice for armchair "screening" tours is Collegiate Choice Walking Tours, videotaped at both U.S. and international colleges ($15 each plus $8 shipping per order). These aren't as slick as the free promotional tapes schools provide. Instead, the camera records a student-led tour of the campus, including questions from members of the tour group. "You'll see what you'd see if you went on the tour yourself," including the blemishes, says Cliff Kramon, who tapes most of the tours. This is no substitution for a first-hand visit, but if you simply can't afford to go in person, it's the next-best thing.

For Mom & Dad: What to ask about money matters

Before your visit, your student should schedule appointments with an admissions adviser or a financial aid counselor who can give you answers to all your money questions:

  • What's the school's endowment? The endowment per student?
  • What is the average SAT score and class rank?
  • Do you meet 100% of financial need, or do you leave a gap?
  • What expenses are included in the cost of attendance? What are the allowances for transportation, books and personal expenses?
  • Do you expect students to contribute a certain amount of earnings toward college costs?
  • If my child is receiving financial aid, will an outside scholarship replace a loan or a grant I would otherwise receive from the school?
  • Do you include unsubsidized Stafford loans or PLUS loans in financial-aid packages?
  • For divorced parents: Whose income and assets are included in financial-aid calculations?
  • Do you help students find paid internships or co-op jobs?
  • Do you have an accelerated-degree program?
  • Can I pay tuition in installments?

For kids: What to ask about campus life

College officials are the best people to address questions about admissions and financial aid. But talking to real students is your chance to get the inside skinny on what campus life is really like. Some schools will allow you to stay overnight in one of the dorms, giving you a first-hand feel of campus life -- and a prime opportunity to talk to students. The school also should be able to provide you with e-mail addresses of a current students who are willing to answer your questions. And, of course, the basic campus tour itself is usually conducted by a student, so come prepared with some questions to ask:

Is the campus secure? Is there an escort system? Can students walk alone at night?

How big are classes -- freshman year and beyond?

What do students do on weekends? Does the school's social life revolve around fraternities and sororities? Can you comfortably be an independent?

Who are the best professors?

What are the most popular classes?

Who's teaching introductory classes, professors or graduate students?

What's the campus housing like? Do most students stay on campus in their junior and senior years?

How's the food? (In fact, don't take another student's word for it. Go grab lunch in the dorm cafeteria to see for yourself.)

What kind of advising and career counseling services are provided on campus?

While you're on campus, also get a copy of the current course catalog if you don't have one already. That will give you a vivid picture of what your child's selection of courses will be like.

A book that may be helpful as you prepare to embark on college tours is Visiting College Campuses (Princeton Review, $20). This guidebook tells you how to get to 250 U.S. campuses by plane, train or automobile and lists local hotels, regularly scheduled tour dates and times, and local attractions -- in case you have some spare time.

Part of this article was excerpted from the book Financing College, by the editors of Kiplinger's Personal Finance. For more practical advice on navigating the maze of planning for college and paying the bill, order a copy today.