As high school students prepare to spend the next several years and thousands of dollars earning an undergraduate degree, finding the right college is critical. The atmosphere on campus, the diversity of the student body, and the local surroundings all weigh on the decision. But it's hard to judge these things from a distance, which is why pre-application campus visits are so important. The costs of doing so, however, add up quickly.
Fortunately, there are ways qualified students can visit a campus for free or at minimal cost. One option, open to every student, is a well-planned road trip to nearby colleges and universities. This is an efficient and money-saving approach that minimizes the cost of transportation, food, and lodging.
But jaunts to schools beyond driving range can be prohibitive, especially for families on a tight budget. Students in this situation can look to a number of colleges and special programs that underwrite the cost of campus visits, even for those who need to fly in. This help isn't offered to just anyone, though. It's typically reserved for students who meet income and academic eligibility standards. Many programs also give priority to students from traditionally underrepresented demographic groups and to first-generation college students.
High school students who wish to visit an out-of-state university but lack the financial resources should find out if the school runs a fly-in program. Shria Tomlinson, site director at College Track Oakland, a national nonprofit that helps underserved high school students prepare for and complete college, urges eligible students to fill out the participating schools' program applications, which are usually quite short. If approved, the student receives a free roundtrip ticket and food and housing during the visit; attends a class and meets faculty; and has to the opportunity to explore a campus they otherwise would not have seen. The visit generally extends over two to three days and students are under no obligation to attend the school if they are subsequently accepted.
Most fly-in weekends, referred to as diversity weekends at some schools, occur during the fall semester, or between July and November. Some schools also host visits in the spring. The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota, for example, organize fly-in weekends in March and April for students who have been accepted and are considering attending one of the schools.
Although most deadlines for high school seniors have already passed by this time, juniors (or their parents) may want to assemble a list of colleges with fly-in programs for the upcoming fall semester. Two good places to start are College Greenlight and Get Me to College. The information on these sites may not be comprehensive, so contact the admissions office at target schools even the institution isn't listed on either site.
Scholarships and Local Programs.
What if the campus you want to visit doesn't offer a fly-in program? Some third-party organizations, such as College Track and Upward Bound, require long-term college-prep commitments starting in high school, but others are specifically for high school juniors who are preparing to apply. Again, these organizations generally help low-income, high-achieving students. Quest Bridge, for example, accepts more than 2,000 students into its College Prep Scholarship program and awards five to ten percent of those students an all-expenses-paid visit to one of the company's partner colleges.
Local organizations, even churches and community centers, also may be able to help. They may not spring for a roundtrip plane ticket, but a free, organized bus trip to an otherwise unreachable college campus is a welcome offer. In New York City, the Grand Street Settlement's College and Career Discovery Program supports high school students through counseling, SAT prep, financial aid workshops, and the like, while encouraging them to attend colleges and post-secondary technical schools, in part by arranging organized campus visits.
"Visit" From Home.
If you don't meet the requirements for a fly-in program and can't find a local organization to help out, take a virtual tour of the campus. The experience can't compare to the real thing -- you won't get to meet other students, sleep in a dorm, or attend a class -- but as a last resort it's better than nothing. Such "tours" can be found directly on college websites or at You University or eCampus Tours.