Saving money on the college search

Common sense, economy can whittle down costs

November 09, 2003|By Steve Rosen | Steve Rosen,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

College can take some pretty deep pockets - long before you write the first tuition check.

For many families, the financial drain of sending a son or daughter to a college or university starts with shelling out money for multiple rounds of SAT and ACT exams, tutoring, trips to visit schools, application fees and much more.

Parents can easily wind up spending hundreds of dollars - if not thousands - on the college search before the first acceptance letter arrives.

But with some belt-tightening and common sense, those costs can be whittled down without hurting the high schooler's chances of getting into his or her top choice.

Here are some money-saving suggestions from Barb Bruns, a college counselor at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kan., who has 20 years of experience in the field and is the mother of a college freshman. I've included a few of my tips as a parent going through the process for the first time:

Applications and fees.

Bruns said it's not unusual for students to apply to 15 or 20 schools.

"One student, who was applying to over 15 schools, told me she was applying to school X because her grandfather went there," Bruns said. "She admitted she would never go there. I talked her out of applying. It saved both of us work, and it saved her parents the money."

The message for parents is to be realistic about the number of schools their children apply to. I recommend holding the line at six schools. That will save you money and the time and work involved with filling out applications. Still, six applications at $40 apiece or more in fees isn't small change.

Keep in mind that many schools will reduce the application fee or waive it for students who apply online. The same is true for some early-admission applications.

In some cases, schools will waive fees for students who attend college fairs or receptions, or visit the campus. And alumni of a college or university often receive applications to hand out to prospective students where the fee has been waived.

"I usually get several of those, and I just put them in the college file for anyone to use," Bruns said.

It pays to make contacts and ask questions.

College visits.

Taking a trip or two with the child can be a great way to answer a lot of questions about the campus atmosphere and determine whether a school might be a good match. Bruns suggests touring schools during part of a family vacation or a long weekend trip, perhaps staying over on a Monday, when school is in session.

Many schools encourage visiting students to spend a night in a dorm and to taste-test college food with a free meal or two in a dining hall.

Some hotels and motels will offer discounts to families referred by the university being visited. Amtrak offers discounted rates on college visits.

For many families, traveling is not an option. That's where the Internet can come in handy. Use school Web sites to take virtual tours of the campus, to download forms and course information, and to chat on occasion with undergraduates about such things as social life, course loads and campus crime rates.

Some parents wisely hold off on college visits until after their student learns of the admissions and financial aid decisions.

Private college counselors.

Think carefully about hiring a private counselor. Many are well-qualified to help sort through issues such as preparing for standardized testing, selecting schools to apply to, drafting application essays and weighing financial aid packages.

But the child's high school counselor, though often taxed for time, can provide help on all of these issues for free. And free or relatively low-cost information on college admissions is abundant in books and on videos and the Internet.

Early college credits.

If appropriate, the student should consider taking high school advanced placement or international baccalaureate classes, where college credit can be earned. That could mean big savings.

"I had a student that earned 28 hours of AP credit and saved a year's tuition at Washington University" in St. Louis, Bruns said. "Talk about saving a bundle, about $25,000 that year."

The college search has a language all its own. Here are a few terms that parents and high school students should become familiar with:

Common application: An application for admission that can be completed once and photo- copied to send to any of about 200 participating colleges and universities. The application can also be completed online and submitted electronically.

Early action: Allows a student to apply by an early deadline and receive an admissions decision earlier. There is no binding commitment for the student to attend.

Early decision: Opportunity to apply by an early deadline and receive early admissions decision. This is a binding commitment.

Reach school: A college or university where the student has up to a 50 percent chance of being accepted.

Safety school: One where the likelihood of being accepted is better than 50 percent.

Suitcase school: A school where much of the student body leaves campus on weekends and evenings.

Source: Lafayette College

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