Money Questions to Ask on Your College Visits

The season of on-campus visits is upon us, so let’s get ready to ask those admissions counselors (and financial aid office staff) some thoughtful questions! You have a choice about how prepared you are going to be for the campus visit with your child. You are allowed to just show up, hear the dog-and-pony show from the admissions office, walk around a bit and leave. That’s not a good approach though, since there are so many more insights you can get about a school if you put in a little prep time.


How to Prep Before Your Campus Visit


Step 1: Scour the school’s website.

Back in my day (yep, the mid 1990’s!), all we had were college brochures and a live person to talk if you had questions about the college. Can you imagine such a primitive period?! Today, you can find out almost everything you need to know financially about a school before ever stepping foot on campus. Take advantage of the “Financial Aid” or “Admissions” links on the school’s site. In fact, if you haven’t thoroughly read the website and started jotting down some questions, you are wasting your time with the campus visit (at least in terms of answering your financial questions).

What are you looking for on the website? Cost of Attendance (COA), that’s the biggie. Almost all schools will show a breakdown of tuition, fees, room and board, books, and other expected expenses. They might even it split it out for first-years vs. upper-class folks. This is not what you are going to pay for your child.

To reiterate, very few people pay the COA, since the amount is always modified by the college’s financial aid package. Why do you care then? It’s a starting point, and if you’re interested in the school, this amount will be critical later once you get to the financial aid process.

You will also want to jot down the key dates around financial aid, and when merit scholarships are considered. Let me share a cautionary tale: I completely missed the deadlines for merit scholarships for the school I ultimately chose to attend (Concordia College in Moorhead, MN). It cost my family thousands of dollars in scholarships that I had a good shot at accessing. A big mistake! And it happened simply because my parents and I did not plan ahead to apply early for those scholarships.


Step 2: Start a tracking system.

You’ll be visiting a number of colleges. My wife, a professor at Coe College, recently heard that families applying to Coe also consider 10-15 other schools in the application process! How are you planning to keep all this information organized? Not in your head, that’s for sure! The schools will begin to run together if you don’t keep some sort of organizational system.

You can utilize a good old-fashioned notebook, an Excel spreadsheet or Word doc, an app on your phone. Just find a method that works well for you. You’re going to be hearing a similar presentation from all of the colleges, and financial details especially can get muddied. Start this tracking system before your first campus visit. Ideally, use a table or chart to compare similar items across the schools, like Cost of Attendance and application deadlines.


Financial Questions During the Campus Visit


I’m realistic—you’re not doing a campus visit just so that you can ask questions about the cost of college. You and your student want to see the life of the college first-hand, whether it’s sitting in on a class, checking out the freshmen dorm rooms, or speaking with an athletic coach. Those are all valuable activities, but don’t neglect the opportunity to ask some questions about financials. Since you’ve done your homework before the visit, here are some of my favorite “next-level” questions:

  1. How is aid awarded? If my family makes a lot of money, are merit scholarships available? Where can I learn more about merit scholarships?
  2. Will the financial aid package be different (less) after the first year?
  3. Which work-study jobs are available and what do they pay? How do we secure one?
  4. When will financial aid award letters be available? 
  5. Is your Net Price Calculator accurate and up-to-date?
  6. If I get an outside scholarship, how does that work with my financial aid package? 


There are many more you can ask, I like this listing. The key point is this—you have a lot to do on a relatively brief campus visit. Your child will likely be a bit overwhelmed, as this is the college’s chance to do a hard sell. Keep organized by bringing your tracking system and have your financial questions laid out ahead of time.


You are the Hub


Why put in this level of effort for financial questions on the campus visit? Because you are the hub, the locus of all this financial information in the college planning process. Financial decisions aren’t the only set of decisions you’ll make about college, but they’re right up near the top. As a parent, you need to see yourself as the center of this windstorm of dollars, with a series of other people who can help as the “spokes” to your “hub”. This includes the admissions counselors, financial aid office, future professors, resources at your high school, and other parents.

Your child is right by your side, and although they are going to be legal adults, they do not have the experience necessary to navigate these decisions. You might not be comfortable either, but that’s what your “spokes” are for—tap into them and recognize that those people are there to help make this college planning process easier.

What are the topics you ultimately need these spokes to help you with?

  • Evaluating colleges based on financial attributes
  • Applying for merit or need-based aid, including the FAFSA
  • Determining how much to take out in student loans
  • Making payments to the college for the family’s contribution
  • Arranging a work-study job on campus
  • Paying for books, fees, food (if not on the meal plan) and other aspects of day-to-day life


The campus visit is a chance to meet some of your spokes in person for the first time. Use that time! Bring your financial questions, be organized, and you’ll have a satisfying and productive visit.  Enjoy this time with your child, what an adventure!


Are you freaked out about being a hub, about the responsibility and tasks of the college planning process? Don’t be, I’m here to help. Please reach out with any questions!

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