College Visits - Some questions you'll want to ask!

Summer time, a great time for reading a book and going to the pool, is also a great time for families to work college visits into their summer travel plans. Colleges plan special visit days over the summer to show off their best sides with tours of their beautiful campuses, dining halls, and recreation facilities. And while many questions will occur to you about dorms, dining halls, academics, and student life, we wanted to share some questions from a financial perspective you’ll want to have answered.

Before you even begin embarking on a variety of visits, you should have a college criteria checklist so you can compare and contrast colleges subjectively to see if they meet your criteria.  We’ve created a College Visit Scorecard for your notes and observations. Our recommendation is to do some initial work to determine a major/career of interest to you so as you go on visits you can speak to the department specifically and not limit yourself to the nickel tour and get sold on how cool the campus is.

Of course the first question everyone thinks of is how much does it cost to attend this school?  While seemingly straightforward, some additional things to consider are costs other than tuition, room and board, and books and supplies.  Will your student have a car on campus? If yes, you’ll have parking fees, gas, and maintenance.  How far away is the campus from home?  Travel to and from can add up so you’ll want to give this some thought. Fees can vary depending on your major for things like lab and computer costs. At some point your student may move to off-campus housing. What can you expect to pay for off-campus housing?  You’ll want to be able to compare the cost of housing for years three and four at your favorite schools.

What is the average college loan debt students leave with after graduation? The answer to this question will give you a good overall picture of how much students are receiving in aid to cover costs.

How does the school structure merit aid, aid based on academic performance? Does it last all four years? Or do they even offer merit aid? Some colleges do not and only offer need-based aid. Some schools use a grid style chart for determining merit aid like this one from Miami University. You can see at a glance if you achieve a certain GPA combined with a certain ACT/SAT score, you will be awarded a specific amount of money. If your student has a dream school in mind, this information can be great motivation to get them to hit the books and improve their score. In some cases, an increase of just one point can mean upwards of $20,000 over 4 years! (University of Dayton also has a cool one on their site as well.) 

Some universities do not have a predetermined structure where a certain GPA and test score gets you a certain amount of aid.  Instead they may award merit aid in certain areas like science or for certain things like leadership.  As an example, one thousand freshmen apply for 5 full ride scholarships. These type of “competitive” merit aid scholarships are more uncertain for your student.

What percentage of need-based aid does the school meet? Know your Expected Family Contribution, EFC, before you visit a school. You can use this calculator to estimate your EFC. If your family’s EFC is $35,000 and the school costs $40,000 per year and the school meets 100% of financial need, you know the school will provide the $5,000 difference. But be careful!  How do they meet that need?  One of the most common ways a school meets financial need is in the form of loans or work study. You need to “know before you go” if they are giving you “gift aid” (grants and scholarships) or “self help” (Loans and work study).  (To read an important announcement about changes to the financial aid formula for 2016, click here.)

What percentage of students graduate in 4-years? How about 5-years? When you compare the offers from schools, you’ll want to look at the whole picture. By going to school for a fifth year, you are adding at least 25% to the total cost and you have lost a year’s income by taking longer to graduate.

As a side note, did you know only 39% of students graduate in four years according to the National Center for Education Statistics? “Among first-time students who were seeking a bachelor's degree or its equivalent and attending a 4-year institution full time in 2006, 39 percent completed a bachelor's degree or its equivalent at that institution within 4 years, while 55 percent did so within 5 years, and 59 percent did so within 6 years.”¹ Would you be willing to pay 25% more than your neighbor for a new Honda Odyssey that is exactly the same? No way!  Also keep in mind in many cases, scholarship money may end after 4 years.  So the fifth year may be 100% out of pocket. Critical to check how long the scholarship will last as you analyze financial aid award letters.

So we’ve shared with you several questions to consider when visiting colleges. You know we want you to “Know before you go!” Having all the answers will allow you make the most informed decision.

¹National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest of Education Statistics, 2013, Chapter 3: Postsecondary   Education, Degrees” <>

Something else to consider: You've visited the colleges, applied, and received the mysterious financial aid award letter. Take a moment to check out our Mysteries of the College Financial Aid Award Letter blog.