8 ways to save on college visits

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Prospective students and their parents often spend a bundle visiting the colleges they’re considering. Here are a few ways to cut those costs.

Long before the first tuition bill comes due, prospective college students will have to figure out how to pay the costs associated with campus visits. For those considering a college outside of easy driving distance, the costs can quickly add up to four figures and beyond.

Here are eight ways to slash expenses:

1. Get subsidized college visits and discounts.Some colleges offer fly-in reimbursement. For example, Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., reimburses half the cost of airfare up to $150 for prospective students. Enroll, and the school will pay for the other half of the cost.

Many schools also will offer free or discounted passes to the dining hall, a list of hotels that offer discounts for prospective students and a free shuttle to and from campus. Call the admissions office at schools you’re considering to see what’s available.

While you’ve got them on the line, schedule everything for one trip so you won’t have to make a return visit, says Regina Schawaroch, associate director of admissions at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“We suggest that parents call ahead to make arrangements to get everything done at once — the tour and admissions interview, meeting with faculty and sitting in on a class, watching an athletics practice or trying out for a team,” she says.

2. Reduce your travel costs.If you’re traveling by train or plane, you may be able to snare a discount by booking through specific Web sites. Student Universe and STA Travel offer discount airline tickets for students.

Considering a train? Amtrak has partnered with Campus Visit to offer a deal for high school juniors and seniors traveling with a parent or guardian. Buy a full-fare ticket and the companion ticket is 50 percent off. Check the Campus Visit Web site for details and restrictions.

3. Cull your list.The glossy brochures and books that fill the mailbox of every high school junior and senior may make it difficult to narrow down the choices. But sophisticated Web sites can help trim choices, says Brittany Burton, campus rep coordinator for the Web site CampusCompare.

“Sites allow you to check out the campus virtually first, and student reviews give you a perspective you can’t find in an average guidebook,” Burton says. Sites including CampusCompare, CampusExplorer and YOUniversityTV offer an array of tools to help.

For example, CampusCompare allows students to do side-by-side comparisons of up to three schools in categories that include academics, financial aid and athletics. YOUniversityTV provides video tours of more than 200 campuses, and CampusExplorer offers tools to help student calculate their likelihood of admission at a given school.

Also consider online college fairs such as CollegeWeekLive to get information directly from the colleges themselves. The events allow prospective students to log in at a specific time to talk to any of dozens of college admissions officials via instant messaging and video chats. Trim the list and you’ll also trim your travel costs.

4. Check out college town Web sites.Some urban areas have more than a dozen colleges within driving distance, and an array of sites can help you make the most of your visit to these towns. Sites such as Onebigcampus.com for Philadelphia colleges, Thecollegecity.com for Pittsburgh schools and Bostonvisit.com for universities in Boston have discounts for travel and hotels.

All of these sites offer a helpful “miles and minutes” feature that shows the distance between area colleges so you can build an appropriate amount of time into your schedule to travel from one school to another.

5. Use your visit to eliminate application fees.College application fees can be steep –often more than $50. But many colleges such as Albright College in Reading, Pa., waive fees if you visit.

The Minnesota Private College Council, an umbrella organization for 17 schools, offers a Private College Week every year — June 22 to 26 in 2009 — when students and their parents can visit. The colleges coordinate tour schedules, and students pick up “passports” that are stamped after visiting and can be redeemed for up to four application fee waivers.

Several other states, including Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky, offer similar programs for their private colleges. Call the admissions office of any school you plan to visit to see what discounts and fee waivers are available.

6. Share costs with other students.Connect with other high school students planning to visit the same colleges and share transportation and hotel costs. Some high schools will help arrange visits for groups of students to area colleges as well.

7. Join a tour group.Students with some stamina might consider tours offered by Web sites such as College Visits and Collegiate Explorations. Students visit up to three colleges a day over five to seven days to get an overview of many colleges within a limited geographic area. While costs can approach $2,000, they may ultimately be less expensive than individual tours.

8. Visit efficiently.As long as the colleges are in fairly close proximity, it usually isn’t difficult to manage two visits in a day. If you’re traveling long distances, consider visiting the schools you’re interested in during a single long weekend.

Many colleges, including Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.; the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho; and the University of Oregon in Eugene, offer half-day campus visits. They generally include a brief tour, information session, class visit and student-hosted meal or reception. Such tours can give prospective students a good sense of the school and can be helpful in ruling out schools that aren’t a good fit.

“If you plan early, you can do it all in one trip. Or, if you’re on a family vacation, it might be something where you can stop by a college on the way,” CampusCompare’s Burton says.