The One College Expense You Forgot to Factor In
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The One College Expense You Forgot to Factor In

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Most parents of prospective college students know what they’re in for when it comes to today’s hefty tuition and room-and-board bills – about $50,000 a year or more for most private universities – and they gird up for that whopper in numerous ways.

Many start small by spending about $18 on the Fiske Guide to Colleges, seeking tips and insights on the perils and pitfalls of student charge cards and other unaccounted-for costs. They attend college fairs and guidance department seminars, analyze university websites, consult with financial aid experts – and quiz every neighbor, family member and friend they can get hold of who’s already been down this path. 

But when it comes to budgeting for the total costs of college, few families today are factoring in one of the first expenses on the calendar: the costs of visiting the schools on their children’s A-list.

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One well-heeled New York-area parent of a current high school junior was shocked to realize she’ll spend $5,000 this year on college visits alone. This number includes the cost of airfare, hotel rooms, meals, gas, tolls and other expenses from their visits, and it’s all before her son even sends out a single college application. 

Her son has registered to see 15 colleges by taking tours given by admissions offices and attending department presentations, open houses and other registration-driven events. He’ll see even more colleges during “unofficial” campus drive-throughs and the like.

“I think it’s important to see a range of schools – based on size and other factors – to give students some knowledge on which to base their decisions,” Anna Lake (not her real name) told The Fiscal Times. “Most kids know very little about the college atmosphere before their junior year of high school, unless they have siblings or other close relatives who’ve already been through the process.”

Still, the money flying out of her pocket for these high-wattage visits – including a trip out to two Colorado colleges, where she’ll combine family vacation time – surprised even her. “Yikes,” she said.   

“While many families budget for college tuition and room and board, they forget to budget for the cost of actually applying to college,” says Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of IVYWise, an educational consulting firm that provides services for college applicants. 

Nat Smitobol, a college admissions counselor at IVYWise, says most families will spend about $3500 a year on college visits, college application fees, SAT and ACT tests and such in 2013.

This figure doesn’t include SAT or ACT test preparation, though, which today can run hundreds of dollars or considerably higher, depending on the program. It also doesn’t include professional help with college essay writing, which many students use. And it definitely doesn’t include a comprehensive high-end program called “Application Boot Camp,” a consulting package for college-bound students that can cost upwards of $40,000.

Just the college application fees alone can be hefty. “If you consider that most students today apply to 10 colleges and most applications run about $70 each, you’re looking at $700 right there,” Smitobol told The Fiscal Times.

One New York parent says she and her daughter visited 20 colleges before her child figured out where she wanted to go. Their priciest trip, a flight out to an Ohio college, cost about $800, including airfare, hotel and rental car. It would have been higher if the school hadn’t picked up half the cost of the daughter’s airfare as part of its “admitted students” program. “Since my daughter was narrowing down her final choices at that point, we considered the $800 money well spent,” the mom told The Fiscal Times.

Another East Coast parent flew with her son to three schools in California and two in Washington State over the course of a week. “There were plane tickets in and out of three different cities, car rentals, five days of hotels – I haven’t actually totaled it up yet and I’m not sure I want to,” said this parent, adding that it was “several thousand dollars for sure.”

The expenses can clearly take a bite out of the family budget, not to mention everyone’s peace of mind. Says one parent of a son in college and another one about to enter, “What about the cost of meds to keep parents calm during this process?” 

The Fiscal Times reached out to more than 25 parents of college-age students for advice on keeping the search process as cost-effective as possible. Here’s a selection of tips, hints, and tricks to help newbie college parents navigate the campus visit process.

--Research colleges ahead of time, so that you and your child know as much about the schools as you can. Know the schools’ size, location, and proximity to major cities, transportation, and shops. This will help narrow down the number of visits. 

--Take advantage of the virtual tours most schools offer on their websites. Make your child do most, or at least some of, this work.

--Do the “circuit”: Combine several college visits while in one geographic area. “If you’re visiting Hamilton College in upstate New York, for example, you’ve got Colgate, Skidmore, and Union all nearby,” advises Nat Smitobol of IVYWise. “You could potentially visit four schools in two days.”

--Team up with another parent and student for everyone’s benefit. “We usually went in one car. That way, the moms had company and so did the kids,” says one New York mother.

--Take advantage of your child’s half-days off during high school by using that time to see local colleges. In many areas of the country, you can drive there and back within a few hours’ time.

--Eat at the campus dining hall or café. Some schools give free meal passes to prospective students; others offer discounts. You’ll not only pay less for food than if you ate on the road, your child will get a true “taste” of the meal options and dining hall ambiance.

--Opt for just one parent on college visits, not two – unless you want to turn it into a family trip, which many people do. “I love going on college tours,” one Florida parent of two daughters gushed. “It makes me want to go back to school – there are so many more interesting things on campuses than when I went to school.” Another parent said college tours were a great way to bond with her son.

--Combine visits with family vacations. “One summer, we mixed seeing Cooperstown and Niagara Falls with three college visits,” said one New York City-area parent.

--Check out overnight stays on campus. Many schools offer this option, especially those that roll out the red carpet for admitted students.

--Talk to current students, not just your tour guide, while on campus. “If students have a problem or grievance, they will probably share it with you,” advises The Princeton Review. “If they love their school, they won’t be shy about it either. Specific questions yield far more interesting (and helpful) answers.”

--Make time to talk to professors. Your child will gain a greater understanding of the finer points of particular college programs

--If your child can also sit in on a class, especially in a field he or she’s potentially interested in, that’s a golden opportunity to get closer to the college experience before enrolling.  

--Keep notes. Otherwise all those campus visits will start rolling into one big blur.