Excitement builds as you are thinking about planning a series of college campus visits. As you walk around each campus, you will begin to discover if you can see yourself at each school. Each institution will highlight its top-of-the-line facilities, allow you to explore campus dining and housing options and experiences, and give you opportunities to consider what you want to study.
And amidst this excitement you may wonder, can I afford any of this? How do I figure it out? What and who do I ask? How do I track this information?
In this article, I’ve rounded up some of the best tips for you as you prepare to make your visits:
1. Prepare yourself.
The United States Department of Education offers a free website ( https://studentaid.gov ) with step-by-step instructions for completing forms and walks you through the various processes.
2. Before you arrive for campus tours, work to understand financial aid terms.
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarity on how an institution defines a term if something seems unclear. Here is a helpful glossary (https://studentaid.gov/help-center/answers/topic/glossary/articles) that includes terms and brief explanations. For example:
- Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is a form used to assesses your financial need and supplies you with funding options accordingly, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The FAFSA form is free, so if a website asks you to pay to fill it out, you’re not dealing with the official site. Be wary of any service charging you for advice or applying for aid.
- The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is a measure of your family’s financial strength. It is a number each school uses to calculate how much financial aid they would offer you. Note: Your EFC is not the amount of money you will have to pay, nor is it the amount of federal student aid you will receive; it is used to calculate the aid you are eligible to receive.
- The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program includes loans where the U.S. Department of Education is your lender. There are four types of these loans available.
- The federal government provides grant funds for students attending colleges, career schools, and universities. Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid.
- Federal Work-Study provides part-time jobs for undergraduate students with financial need, allowing them to help pay education expenses.
- Many nonprofit and private organizations offer scholarships to help students pay for college or career school. This type of free money, which is sometimes based on academic merit, talent, or a particular area of study, can make a real difference in helping you manage your education expenses.
3. Ask the right people the right questions.
Many of your questions will be directed to your admissions counselor, but don’t be afraid to ask others you meet about affordability. Your admissions counselor will be the source for exact policies and specific fees.
Try to reframe your campus tour so that you can gather information. You will likely have a current student as a tour guide. This is a great opportunity to ask about experiences at the campus—Are they a commuter or have commuter friends? Are there on-campus housing requirements? Can students get by without a car? Are there public transportation or ride-share options available? Are there popular student discounts available? Are there free on-campus activities? Do many students work off-campus?
Tour guides are not the only current students you will see and interact with throughout your campus visit. As you stand in line at the college coffee shop or eat a meal in the dining hall, ask these students these questions.
4. A bit of practical advice.
I have found that most visitors to campus gather better information if they have predetermined what questions they want (or need) to ask current students, especially when the questions relate to affordability. Here are a few practical preparations and steps.
- Complete your FASFA before your tour – You will have more specific information and your counselors can give you more specific answers.
- Write out your affordability questions. This not only helps you to know what you want to ask but helps you prepare to ask for any details you may be looking for from the school.
- Have a system for tracking who you asked, their role, and their responses. Not everyone will answer every question. When you begin to compare institutions, you will have a wealth of knowledge and perspective to use to make a more informed decision.