Jason Flurry, CFP
Summer college visits – are they worth it or not?
Timing is everything, so understand what you're getting (and not getting) when scheduling your summer college campus tours.
It’s often hard to get away during the school year to visit all the colleges you’d like to see before making final selections, especially if your student is a top performer whose schedule is maxed out with activities and rigorous classes at school. They don’t want to miss tournaments, debates, and other events they’ve prepared for and being out of class makes it harder on them than it already is to keep their grades high. So what are you supposed to do to get these important college visits in?
Well, spring break is an option, but most kids don’t want to spend their spring breaks touring colleges. Same goes for Christmas break – plus most colleges are closed during that time of the year anyway.
That leaves the summer when everybody has a little more flexibility with their schedules. Except, summer is one of the worst times to visit a college if you’re looking to get a true read on the real vibe a college campus has.
Sure, a lot of the academic stuff will still be same. The buildings don’t change with the seasons and you can still get a good tour guide who can walk backwards, point out a bunch of interesting things, and not fall down. That’s always impressive.
But, at the end of the day, the essence of many colleges is not the physical layout of their campus or their academic departments. It’s their energy – their sense of community.
Think of it like visiting New York, Paris, London, or any other big city known for its ambiance and vitality – except instead of visiting during one of its peak seasons, you went on a day when nobody was there. That’s right, imagine the place being almost completely empty. There’s just the visual image of the city you’ve longed to see, but it’s missing the heartbeat that made it one of the world’s most desired destinations.
That’s what many college visits are during the summer – a beautiful campus with an interesting history and a variety of opportunities to explore, but with no signs of the true, unique spirit that makes up that particular college’s “college experience.” And because of that, it’s virtually impossible to REALLY know if that college is what you’re looking for when you visit under those conditions.
So what should you do? Ideally, you want to carve out some times during the school year to check out these colleges, even if it does mean you have to sacrifice your spring break this one time. (Sorry, I know that’s not what you wanted to hear – but this is important.) College spring breaks are on a different schedule than high school spring breaks, so this is a very good time to schedule your visit and still see the college in full motion. You’ll have to plan your trip in advance though because a lot of other people may be thinking the same thing. Spaces on tours can fill up quickly that time of year.
Another good time to work in a quick visit is over a long weekend when there’s a teacher workday, a holiday, or mid-semester fall or winter break at your high school. Colleges will likely be on a different schedule than your high school then too, so don’t assume that if your school is closed for a holiday that the colleges will be too. Days like Columbus Day and President’s Day can be great opportunities to see a college in full swing without missing something important back home.
The key to making these opportunities work for you is planning ahead. You know your school schedule well in advance, so as soon as it’s available, pull it out and schedule your college visits as far ahead as possible. You can always make adjustments later, but if you’re like me, what’s on the calendar tends to get done. It’s not real until it lands on the calendar - so make those plans early and build your other activities around them.
Do I have to see every college on my list? What if even after making your plans you still don’t have time or the resources available to get to every campus in person before you apply? That’s a very common situation and the good news is it’s okay to miss a few. Just be sure to see enough that you can get a feel for what different attributes are like in person.
For example, visit a small college and big college to see and feel the difference. Check out an urban campus and something in a smaller college town, even if it isn’t necessarily a college you’re super interested in attending. If your time and resources are limited during the school year, go see something close by that’s similar and determine if there are any “deal killers” involved that would make you not want to see other schools like the one you happen to find unappealing. Just be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater over a bad tour guide or a college that’s not really a true apples to apples comparison to the one you ARE really interested in.
For a lot of our clients we find that after a few visits to colleges of different types and sizes and settings we can estimate their interest in attending other similar schools by doing some research online and taking good notes. Then after applying and getting accepted, and usually getting some type of scholarship and/or financial aid award, they have something in hand that’s worth going to see. At that point you’re going to confirm something instead of just chasing a possibility that may or may not have worked out for you earlier.
Be our guest Colleges are business and the product they sell is a high ticket item surpassed only in price by your home (maybe). Because of the high stakes and high dollars that go with making college decisions, most colleges have a very well-refined system of “sales choreography” that drives their recruiting and selling process.
Once you see the business of college that way, it’s easier to see why it’s in the college’s best interest to get their top prospects back on campus under favorable conditions late in the decision making cycle. They want to “wow you” one more time hoping that their final nudge will be enough to win your heart and your business.
With that in mind, if you haven’t visited the campus by the time they host an “Admitted Students Day” or some type of scholarship weekend, this is a wonderful time to go see them. I’ve even had several colleges offer to pay for flights and accommodations so top students and their families can get an initial look, or one more final look, at the very best that college has to offer.
Does that surprise you?
It shouldn’t when you think about how much lifetime value a student has for a college. Do the math. Even if that student is getting a full ride scholarship, there’s still stuff like room and board, books, fees and so on to pay for during the 4 or 5 years he or she will be on campus. There are opportunities to benefit from that student’s work ethic on campus, involvement within their local community, and referral networks back home. And then there are the potential rewards of having a rising star in your alumni base down the road that makes spending a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousand dollars for top prospects, a smart investment in the school’s longer term future too.
If they CAN actually land their top prospects, the colleges will often get a multiple of what they spent as a return on their investment. And because the colleges are very good at running their business, they usually get what they’re after and close the sales that matter most to their long-term bottom line.
You’ve probably never thought about it like that before, but once you see how the business of college works, you begin to feel much more comfortable letting them recruit you and spend whatever they want to do so along the way. Besides, if you go and visit one of your top schools under circumstances like I’ve described – and not LOVE what you see and feel – then that particular college is definitely NOT the one for you.
Summer is for fun! The reality of life is that not everyone can afford to visit colleges during the school year like they would want. I understand that. Just do your best to plan your visits when school is in session and that school’s heartbeat is going strong. You need to see if people look happy. You need to see if they are all walking around with earbuds in their head or hanging out with friends making memories. Taste the food. Hear the sounds. Smell the smells. Just like any visit to a great city, you want to fully immerse yourself in the experience. Do the same with college as best you can whenever you can.
A summer visit is probably better than no visit at all, but you’ll want to do extra homework to make sure that college is a good fit for you before making a final decision. Like I said, next to purchasing a home, paying for college is one of the largest financial transactions most people ever make. You owe it to yourself to be an educated consumer and you want to get the most relevant information possible to ensure you make a good decision. College life is temporary, so a bad choice won’t do you in for good. But while you’re in college, you want to have the best time possible!
Like Stephen Covey said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing THE MAIN THING.” Whether you can do that through a visit in the summer or otherwise, stay focused on what matters most to you based on your college selection criteria. It’s your best “true north” and the one main thing that will help you find the right home in the end.