The College Visit Scorecard and Money Questions You Need to Ask
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
March 3, 2020
When the calendar turns to March, many families start to plan college visits. High school sophomores and juniors hit the road over spring break and summer vacation to tackle an important (and fun!) part of the college search—the college visit. Physically walking a campus can be key to finding the perfect one.
We have some suggestions to make the college visit successful, some important money questions to answer, and a tool families can use to keep track of it all.
First…“Don’t fall in love!”
Friend of Capstone, Beth Probst, likes to say in her Tips for the College-Bound presentations: “Don’t fall in love.”
But wait! Don’t we want the student to “love” the campus?
What she means is “don’t fall in love” without knowing a bit about the college. This scenario happens all the time. A family is passing through Nashville (or some other town). They say, “Hey, let’s just stop and stroll around Vanderbilt while we’re here.” Vanderbilt is lovely with trees and traditional brick buildings. Everything you expect a great college campus to be. Get in the car after your wandering, and the student is in love.
Then you find out…Vanderbilt cost over $73,000 in 2019/20. Their merit scholarship is very competitive with only the top 1% receiving a scholarship. Gulp! Suddenly, you have a student who is in love with a college way beyond what you can afford. (We don’t mean to be picking on Vandy! We could easily find hundreds of similar examples.)
What is a parent to do?
First and foremost, have the money conversation with your child. We have a blog dedicated to this topic. Parents are often hesitant to discuss money with their children, but in this case, students need to be on the same starting page with mom and dad. All the future college conversations will be so much easier when you’re all coming from the same place.
Now, everyone has a good foundation to know where the family is financially. They can begin to search, and once they have narrowed down the list to a manageable size, register for an official college visit at each.
Always make it “official.”
Another of Beth’s tips, don’t just wander onto a campus (like in the Vanderbilt example above). Register in advance for an “official” college tour. In the admissions process, colleges will look at a student’s demonstrated interest. An official tour tells the college the student has visited and is interested, a valuable piece of info when an admissions official is reviewing thousands of applications.
Now that you are there…
What questions do you need to be asking? We’ll refer you to several great lists. (You can Google “college visit tips” and find article after article with suggestions.)
- 118 Great Questions to Ask on a College Tour from PrepScholar
- 36 Questions to Ask on a College Visit from US News & World Report
- College Visit 101: Questions Parents and Student Should Ask During a College Visit
More than enough questions in these resources to cover every possible situation!
It can get confusing!
Time for college visit bingo. What do we mean? If you visit very many colleges, you will discover a pattern. Each official visit will probably have an introductory presentation given by a wonderfully enthusiastic college representative. Families often find they are hearing the same things as if they had a bingo card with boxes to check off. There are several key points that most colleges share and want to draw your attention to like study abroad programs, internships, nationally-recognized majors, brand new facilities, world class professors, diverse study body, safe campus, small class sizes, etc. Each college will start to sound the same.
So, stay organized.
We have created a Campus Visit Scorecard you can use to keep track of each visit. Mark your preferences, take good notes, every bit of information will help a student later when all these visits start to blur together.
Now…those questions pertaining to money matters.
You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that the actual cost of the college does not come up on a standard college tour. (Sometimes it might, but oftentimes it won’t.)
On the college visit, a family may not get to speak with someone in the financial aid office. Sometimes, a family will have to go an extra step to find out more detailed information than the general tour will provide. But if you do, ask those questions specific to your family’s situation.
As an aside, prior to the official visit, do some online homework and see if the college’s website has some of this information detailed for you.
- How much is the total cost? Be sure to include extras like room and board, fees, parking, gas, travel to and from home, off-campus housing, etc. Some of these costs may be hard to estimate, but awareness of pricing relative to other colleges is valuable. (A note on off-campus housing, the official tour will show you a sample freshman dorm. Find out where upperclassmen live. What are the costs?)
- How is aid awarded? What types are available? These questions will depend on a family’s situation. If they are a need-based candidate, does the college meet a student’s full need? If the student is a merit candidate, how does the university structure awards? Is it a competitive process? Do they last for all four years?
- To be considered for merit scholarships, when is the application due? Many colleges ask that those wanting to be considered for merit scholarships apply early decision with due dates in November or December of the senior year. Recently, we have seen deadlines as early as mid-October.
- If work-study is something a family qualifies for and is considering, find out how much campus jobs will pay.
- What percentage of graduates have student loans and how much are those loans? A handy tool to find this information is www.collegescorecard.ed.gov.
- How does a student apply for financial aid? FAFSA? CSS Financial Aid PROFILE®? When will a student receive their financial aid award letter? (The waiting period between learning a student is accepted and finding out how much it will actually cost is really hard on a student!)
Remember, some of this information will be available on the college’s website.
When you have the chance to ask the financial questions, take the time to ask about the things applicable to your family’s situation (divorce, merit, disability, need, etc.). All the collected information will help the student make an informed decision about the perfect college for them to fall in love with.
Originally published 2/2018
September 2, 2021