When Irene Koehler and her 17-year-old daughter, Ariela, set off to visit four colleges and universities in Southern California this fall, they knew they would have to approach their trip with a frugal eye.
So instead of flying, the two drove 1,700 miles roundtrip, starting from their home in Fremont, Calif., got bargain deals on hotels using travel Web sites like priceline.com, and ate their meals out of a cooler in their car trunk or at school cafeterias. It was just one of a number of creative cost-saving concessions the mother and daughter duo employed (or deployed) during their trip.
“I was thinking when we got to this point, we’d have an East Coast trip like a lot of families do and hit on opportunities to see a number of schools that are farther away,” said Koehler, who estimates her family saved about $1,000 on the California trip. “But it is just not financially practical now. We needed to have a different plan”
The college tour, a coming-of-age ritual for high school juniors and seniors, is becoming prohibitively expensive for many families as the economy slides into recession and the cost of gasoline, hotels, and restaurants skyrocket. With the average cost of applying to a group of colleges-application fees, exams, and campus visits included-in the range of $3,500, the campus tour is an easy target for budget cutters.
Families like the Koehlers are eliminating visits to out-of-state colleges, using virtual college fairs and online tours and sending their children on group tours of schools. Some are deciding to postpone trips until their child has been accepted into the school, while others are only visiting schools within driving distance from their homes.
This trend is likely to become more pronounced in the coming year because of the economy, said James Boyle, president of the group College Parents of America. And then there’s the option of eliminating school visits altogether. “There are always a fair number of students who don’t go on tours,” Boyle said. “You’re probably going to see more of that happening now.”
As prime college tour visiting season gets into swing, here are some tips on how families can save money and time while scoping out schools:
1) Do online research:
Most schools offer virtual tours on their Web sites, a good way to get an initial feel for the campus and the school’s offerings, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). This can help families whittle down the number of schools on their list for visits. “If you do your initial legwork online, then you might have a much more realistic and economical college tour planning process on your hands,” he says. There are also a number of Web sites with tools that allow you to compare schools by enrollment, costs, academic programs, graduation rates, student life, and learning outcomes. For example, sites like www.collegeportraits.org, launched in September, offers data on more than 300 public four-year colleges and universities, while U-CAN offers similar information on 728 private colleges and universities. Armed with information like this, parents can take a more “strategic” approach to the college visit, Hawkins said.
2) Wait until you’re admitted:
Many students will make two trips to college campuses, one when they’re figuring out what schools to apply to and another after they’ve been accepted. One way to cut this cost in half is to eliminate one of those trips, said Katherine Cohen, CEO of IvyWise.com and an admissions expert. If a family decides not to travel to schools in the fall, students can still express their interest in a school by meeting with an admissions officer at a local recruiting event, Cohen said. She recommends students check with schools to see when admissions officers will be visiting a nearby city. “Admissions officers are all over the world recruiting students, so they will probably be somewhere near you at some point during the year,” she said.
Some parents worry that their child will not have a good chance at getting into a school unless they visit the school in person, said William McClintick, director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. He recommends that families check with the school to see if it uses “level of interest”-going on a campus tour or having an interview with an admissions officer-as a factor in the admissions process. If it doesn’t, then that’s a case where the family can hold off on the expense of a visit until they find out they’ve been admitted, he said.3) Call It a Vacation:
Most families these days are hard pressed to have the money to pay for both a vacation and visits to college campuses. So why not combine the two? This is what Louise Horgan did when her two twin daughters, seniors at Communications High School in Wall, N.J., did when they started looking at art and design colleges this year. Over the summer, they made treks to Washington, Providence, and Savannah, Ga. They stayed with family whenever possible, looked for deals on midweek hotel prices, and took a handful of day trips to places like Philadelphia and New York. Horgan said her approach saved her $2,500. “We called all our college visits mini-vacations to conserve on money.”
4) Shop for hotel deals:
Hotel rates vary widely. Many colleges have agreements with local hotels and motels on special rates or upgrades for visitors. For instance, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette has deals with several hotels, said Dan Rosenfield, the school’s dean of enrollment management. “Schools are doing this more than ever because they want to give parents as many options as possible in different price ranges,” he said. It might also be worth checking with a school’s residential life office to see if it has any programs geared towards families who plan to say overnight in the area. For example, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., runs guest housing programs, where alumni and families who live nearby host visiting families for as little as $20 to $45 a night. Other schools, especially the large state ones, will often let families stay overnight in a dormitory, another cost-effective option, admissions officers said.
5) Stay Within Driving Distance:
Another way to cut back is by eliminating any visits to schools that require a plane ride or an overnight stay. Families can also save by carpooling when traveling to campuses, saving on gas and other expenses, said Robert Bardwell, a guidance counselor at Monson High School in Monson, Mass. He said he has noticed more of his students visiting schools that are only two or three hours away. “I think these might be conversations families are having because there is no need to visit a school far away if it’s not going to work because they can’t afford it,” he said.
6) Join a group tour:
One way a student can see a lot of schools in a short period is by signing up for a college tour with a trip organizer. There are several college tour groups that cater exclusively to high school students and take them on a whirlwind tour of nearly a dozen colleges over five or six days. One group that organizes these trips is College Visits, which plans trips to 10 or 12 schools over the course of a week. The prices of these trips range anywhere from $285 to $1,900 and include hotels and meals. “It’s a great way to see a lot of schools for not a lot of money and can be much less expensive than if you do it on your own,” says IvyWise’s Cohen.
7) Attend a virtual college fair:
One of the newest trends on the college admission scene is online college fairs, events where students can visit with college admissions officers in virtual booths. This can be a great option for parents who can’t afford to visit out-of-state schools. One of the largest online fairs is CollegeWeekLive, which will be having its fourth fair on Nov. 12 and 13. In addition to the admissions chats, programming includes live video presentations with college admissions experts and video chats with current college students discussing their campus experiences. Organizers expect that this year’s fair will be the largest event, with 200 schools participating and close to 50,000 students logging in. “More schools than ever are participating because they know that parents and students are not going to be able to visit in the numbers the way they have in recent years,” said Robert Rosenbloom, president and CEO of CollegeWeekLive. “They have to do make themselves more available and this is a highly interactive way to do it.”
Damast is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.