Going off to college is exciting but also scary for many high school seniors. There's uncertainty about what will be expected, how to meet friends, and -- often at the top of the list -- anxiety about paying for it all. One way to get a more accurate picture of how the costs add up and whether the experience will be worth the financial burden is to visit the campuses that could be a good fit. While there, take the time to make these important stops.
Related: Is It Cheaper for Americans to Go to College Overseas?
FINANCIAL AID OFFICE
For many students financial aid is key to affording college. The money comes in many forms, including scholarships, grant money, and loans. The financial aid office on every campus can offer guidance on where to look for assistance and provide the most accurate estimate of how much it really costs to attend the school.
After tuition, room and board is the other major expense category. Check out the dorm rooms to see what furniture is included and how much space there is -- then guesstimate a budget for furnishing a home away from home.
Classrooms have evolved over the past decade and now contain interactive white boards and big-screen TVs. For a preview of the teaching and learning styles, visit a few classrooms in different buildings. There should be some correlation between the tuition and the technology visible across the academic infrastructure.
The campus bookstore is rarely the cheapest place to purchase textbooks, which generally cost less when bought or rented online. In a pinch, though, the bookstore is worth the price of convenience. Perhaps most importantly, it sells all the gear any family with a college student may want: hoodies, bumper stickers, baseball caps, mugs, and so on.
Before forking over (a lot) of money for a meal plan, be sure the food is up to par. Many campuses have food courts with good variety, including sushi, salad, hot entrées, soups, etc. Get a sense of the daily offerings, sample the cuisine, and note the prices. Depending on the size of the college or university, there may be numerous dining options, so visit more than one.
The research facilities are an important factor to consider at any school. The library will be a frequent stop, so be sure it provides the tools needed (and the quiet workspace) to be a successful student. When investing so much money in your future, having the necessary support is critical.
Even students who opt out of a school's health insurance plan (usually allowed when covered under another plan) can use the health center for medical needs. On-campus clinics may be cheaper than medical services in town. Ask about the procedure for making an appointment with the health center, what services are offered, and at what cost.
Using the campus workout facilities usually doesn't cost students any extra. But it pays to ask what classes or other programs are available for additional fees. While you're at it, stop by the stadium to see if you can picture yourself cheering on the school's team. Colleges generally offer student tickets to sporting events at a discount or for free.
The student center is often the hub of campus, where students go to hang out, eat meals, and participate in campus-wide events. To get a true sense of the pulse of campus and its price, grab a cup of coffee, take a seat, and people-watch.
Pick up the off-campus vibe at the coffee shops, pizza and sub joints, and clubs nearby. Linger in these places a while to see if they feel comfortable and whether the prices fit your budget. Keep an eye out for businesses offering student discounts.
Many universities give their loyalty to one bank, which means a physical location and all campus ATMs are affiliated with that financial institution. Maintaining an account at the bank with the on-campus network is the best way to avoid hefty ATM fees. But first get the lowdown on the fee structure for services such as checking and wire transfer. Banking off campus is another option, but make sure there's a branch nearby.