How to Visit Colleges on the Cheap

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While attending college out of state could reap a better financial aid package, just the cost of visiting schools away from home can be burdensome. However, using online services can easily whittle down a list of a dozen schools across the country to just two or three.

The cost of a weekend trip for a parent and prospective student -- including airfare, car rental, parking, hotels, meals, gas and tolls -- can easily top $1,000.

Many of those who can bear the financial burden of the trip may not be able to spare the time.

Cliff Kramon, an independent college advisor who operates CollegiateChoice.com, once asked a high-school student why he hadn't visited the nearby Ivy League university he wanted to attend.

"Both my parents work; I run the school newspaper; and I play soccer," Kramon recalls the student saying. "When do you think I have time to go visit?"

Kramon's site offers $15 walking-tour videos of 368 schools in the United States, Canada, Europe and Russia. He says the one-to-two hour videos offer a chance for students and parents to view the campus in a less costly and less time consuming way. Kramon asks the important questions that first-time students and parents may not think of, as well as "indelicate" questions that they might be uncomfortable uttering.

Kramon says he has asked matriculated students and university staff whether bathrooms are co-ed or whether all-female schools make students aware that "there are men in the outside world," as well as other basic questions about class size, amenities and student life.

It's wise to make a list of criteria a school must absolutely have and must absolutely not have. For instance, is Greek life important? Are you looking for a rural, suburban or urban campus? Are there certain extracurricular activities you'd like to be involved in?

The Web offers lots of free services that can help students narrow down the schools they really need to visit. Online forums, blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace can connect prospective students to those who are already on campus to find out whether it's a party school and how clean the dorms are. Online mapping systems can easily determine whether a campus is really just 15 minutes away from an urban center.

Many colleges also have videos of campus life on their own Web sites. Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, notes that Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., once had a live Webcam showing the library, cafeteria and other bustling centers of student activity.

When O'Shaughnessy was visiting schools with her daughter, she used online travel sites like Priceline.com to get discount hotel prices, including a "super-nice hotel" in Portland for $42 a night. If you're looking at the plethora of schools in Boston, it might be wise to stay in a suburb like Medford where the hotels are cheaper, and make the drive into town to visit the schools.

However, the author notes that students still need to do their homework and view campus brochures with a skeptical eye.

"Even if you visit, you shouldn't assume everything they tell you in an admission office is right on the mark," O'Shaughnessy says. "Their job is to market the school."

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