10 ways to save on college visits

It is not atypical to spend $3,000 on travel, food and lodging costs to visit a school before selecting one to attend.

CHICAGO - Never mind four years of tuition. The college-selection process alone has gotten so expensive that parents need a budget just to deal with campus visits and other costs.

"Taking tests, buying books - any preparation you're doing can make the process expensive. But especially the college visits," said Katherine Cohen, a college admissions counselor and founder of ApplyWise (www.applywise.com), an online college admissions counseling site.

That doesn't mean writing off the visitation process this fall. After all, there is nothing like setting foot on a campus for a prospective student to get a sense of a school. But you will need to be smart about controlling the costs.

It is not atypical for someone to spend $3,000 on travel, food and lodging costs from such visits before selecting a school to attend - or much more in some cases, said Cliff Kramon, an independent college adviser.

Students should compile a list of 10 to 15 schools they are interested in by spring of their junior year, Cohen recommends. This should include a mix of most desired schools and backup choices, as well as a range of options: rural, urban, private college, state university and the like. This list can then be pared down for actual visits by scrutinizing college Web sites and getting questions answered by an admissions counselor.

"It amazes me how many students visit schools that don't offer the major they are looking for," said Manuel French, associate director of admission at DePaul University in Chicago.

Here are 10 ways to save money:

1. Take virtual tours. Many college Web sites provide virtual tours of campus and residence halls or more.

Sites such as CampusTours.com and eCampusTours.com also enable virtual tours of hundreds of colleges. And CollegiateChoice.com offers one- to two-hour walking-tour videos of about 368 schools; all were filmed by Kramon and cost $15 apiece.

2. Attend online fairs. At College Week Live events, two-day virtual college fairs, high school students and their parents can ask admissions counselors questions, visit with current students via Webcam, and stop in online booths linking them to other information - all at no cost.

Lists of upcoming college fairs can be found at CollegeWeekLive.com and VirtualCollegeFairs.com, among other sites.

3. Cluster visits geographically. Organize trips so you visit two or more schools in the same area. Some colleges are teaming up to promote this practice.

4. Combine visits with vacations. Visiting campus in the summer is becoming increasingly popular. But Cohen encourages students to go while schools are in session to get a better sampling of college activity and a chance to sit in on classes.

5. Schedule two visits in one day. Three visits in a day is too much to absorb, according to Cohen. Generally, colleges offer an information session given by the school and a campus tour by a student, providing a chance to question both sides.

6. Buddy up. Take a campus tour with a friend interested in the same college or find another student at the local high school who also is considering it. Or ask whether the high school guidance office can put together a group trip.

7. Connect with students long-distance. Seek out e-mail or other contact with college students, through the school's admissions office or elsewhere.

One such option is Askaboutcollege.com, a site that allows college-bound high school students and their parents to ask questions of student volunteers for free.

8. Find an alum. Have your child contact a recent graduate from the same high school who is attending a particular college.

9. Eat at the dining hall. You will get a glimpse of what meals would be like while also saving money.

10. Consider third-party tours. Companies such as College Visits, Collegiate Explorations and Education Unlimited offer an extensive array of college tours. This option might be a less expensive alternative to see a large number of colleges in your region.

For example, students toured about a dozen campuses in the Southeast on a College Visits tour earlier this year out of Nashville for a cost of $1,485 each.