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College campus visits for the savvy consumer

A young Indiana woman recently enrolled in her third college in three semesters. Her poor selection skills have cost her parents nearly $15,000 in misdirected tuition, housing and activity fees since September 2002.

It's a huge hit for a family of four living off salaries as a Burger King manager and an administrative assistant.

Meanwhile, applications at the Indiana schools where she bounced around are up and admission rates are down -- competition rules.

That's why campus visits across the country are becoming vital from more than a family's outlook. According to Jerry Pope, dean of admissions at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill., and the former vice president for admissions practices with the National Association for College and Admission Counseling, selective schools crave students who show an interest.

Many admission offices track who shows up for campus visits, attends hotel receptions, corresponds by e-mail or even places a phone call asking for information. The in-person stops score the most Brownie points.

"Which is unfortunate because the people who aren't savvy enough, who haven't been coached by college counselors, don't know what's expected of them," says Ingrid Hayes, acting director of admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology. "Some students may be edged out because they can't afford all these 'free' visits."

Large institutions such as Georgia Tech don't track to that level, she assures.

"We get people from all over the country, so it's not even practical to expect every student to sit down for an interview," she says.

The smaller campuses like Illinois Wesleyan are exploring ways to help parents fund these in-person visits, Pope says.

The bottom line is that "with the sluggish economy and changing demographics, students really have to market themselves," Pope adds. "They need to be aggressive."

Whether you hock your home or scholarships ooze from your mailbox, here are ways to ensure your college visits measure up to any good investment:

At the kitchen table
Soak up every ounce of free information; surf Web sites and borrow videotapes on your chosen campuses from the high school counselor's stock.

Next, contact students at these colleges who previously attended your high school, church or social clubs. Their impressions more accurately fit your background than merely polling a stranger on campus. Then use this research to narrow your visit list to at least five colleges but no more than 10, says Sean Kaylor, vice president of admissions and enrollment planning at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Students should prepare a short resume detailing their interests and activities to use as a crutch during the interviews. Add to that a list of your top five college priorities; perhaps you don't want a student population larger than 10,000 or you want a chance to spend weekends camping.

"Plan on investigating those five things while you're there. Everything else is window dressing," says Seppy Basili, vice president of Kaplan Inc. publishing company and co-author of Once Upon a Campus: Tantalizing Truths from Students Who've Already Messed Up.

Finally, list specific questions for each campus. Hayes approves of adding a few broader questions to provide a foundation for comparison, but stick to information you want to know. For instance, she says many prospects ask about student/teacher ratios, but the answer doesn't clear up their curiosity about class sizes in their major. And definitely comb the online student newspaper to bring yourself up to speed and polish your conversation about the school.

Pope has denied acceptance to academically qualified students who sat in his office like a bump on a log.

"They need to appear interested and ask good questions," he says bluntly.

Parents, too, have homework before hitting the road. Most importantly, crunch the numbers to determine your annual contribution.

"Parents do themselves a favor by looking at the financial situation upfront rather than waiting until the last minute. We try to put together the best financial aid packet offer. Will it be enough for every family? No," says Kaylor. "But it's better to discover that than go through the entire application process and then learn we can't even come close to what they can afford."

Questions for parents include:

  • Tell me about your average financial aid package.
  • What percentage of need does that meet for the average family?
  • Do you take living expenses into account when figuring financial need?
  • What is your tuition increase history? (Annual increases between 4 and 6 percent are normal, says Pope. However, some public schools recently jumped 15 percent, while a handful of private schools saw 30 percent hikes. Three percent one year and 10 percent the next means you'll have a difficult time budgeting.)
  • How do you pay for construction costs -- endowment funds, capital campaigns or tuition?
  • What is your dropout rate? High numbers can red flag colleges that bait and switch students with attractive financial packages that are nonrenewable the sophomore year, Pope says.
  • How many students complete their degrees in four years?
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