Applying to college is a long process, especially if both you and your parents are figuring out all of the steps together for the first time. This is often true of college visits as well, which can be very expensive but are touted as important part of the applications process. Read this guide to figure out how to approach the cost of visiting colleges as a first-generation student – whether or not you want to make a visit, how to budget, and what to do if you can’t afford a visit.

Introduction: applying to college as a 1st-generation college student

You are considered a first-generation college student if neither of your parents have a college degree (though they may have taken some college classes). This can mean your household’s income is lower (making the price of college and college visits more of a burden) and that your parents are less familiar with the whole application process, including campus visits. Though this guide is specifically for first-generation students, it also applies to applicants whose financial situation may make the prospect of expensive college visits difficult.

First-generation students face some unique challenges in the applications process. After all, having experience and knowledge about the whole process from adults around you to draw upon helps the college search and application process run more smoothly. There are many talented and hardworking first-generation students who do very well, however. Colleges value the different viewpoints first-generation students bring to campus and seek a variety of perspectives in their classrooms, so by no means does being a first-generation student disqualify you from being successful in the admissions process and attending a great college for you.

The value of visiting colleges during the application process

There are many advantages to visiting colleges during the application process. For one, a campus visit allows you to get a more personal perspective on life at the college. You can meet and talk with students, see the dormitories and areas of center life, and sit in on classes. Sometimes, you can also interview on the campus with someone from the admissions office. Read our CollegeVine guide, “College Visits: When (And If) to Make Them” for more details on visiting campuses.

College visits also add a sense of reality to the process. Seeing the place you are applying to shows that it actually exists, and gives you a sense of where you may live and work for the next four years of your life. If you are a first-generation student, this up-close perspective of college life and its atmosphere may be especially valuable for you and your parents.

The costs of visiting colleges: a realistic perspective

Ultimately, the cost of visiting colleges varies a lot depending on how far you are from the school(s) you are interested in and where the school is located. For example, even if you are within driving distance of a school in New York City (and do not have to buy a plane ticket), it will still probably cost more than visiting a school in in a town in the midwest. This is because living costs in New York City are extremely high, so lodging, food, and other necessary expenses on a trip will cost a lot more there than in a less expensive places in suburban or rural areas.

Talk to your parents and come up with a realistic budget to see what you can afford. Think about which school or schools you want to visit most. It may help to work college visits into family vacations, out-of-state school competitions, and other situations where you or your family are already traveling. That way you can save money on extra traveling costs while broadening your knowledge of different college campuses. If you are visiting more than one, it may be best to pick a few that are very different so that you can get a feel for the variety of options available. You may also be able to visit multiple colleges that are close together to cut costs. For example, you can visit a lot of schools on the East Coast in a few days (such as Brown, Williams College, Amherst College, and Harvard), instead of making separate trips for each school.

The total cost of visiting a college or colleges will likely be in the range of hundreds of dollars, and may even be more. This is not a feasible cost for everyone, and colleges know that. They will not hold it against you in admissions—campus visits are not required and generally will not affect your chances of admission. It is reasonable to prioritize other things first, and you will not be penalized.

What are your travel expenses?

Travel costs for you and your parents (if they attend), will include transportation (plane ticket or, if driving, gas), lodging, and meal costs. You also may want to include a budget for school gear and souvenirs, and, if you would like to explore the area around the school, money for those attractions. Additionally, you should account for the indirect cost of taking off time at work to travel for you and/or your parents.

Some schools may allow you to stay in one of their dorms or provide a dining hall voucher for meals to alleviate costs, but this is not guaranteed and usually does not include your parents, who need to make their own arrangements. To check if this is an available option, you should check the admissions website or call the school you are planning on visiting because the policies vary from school to school. Also, some schools have an inn or hotel on campus for guests, and they may even offer a deal for visiting prospective students. That may not be the most affordable option in the area, however, and you should always check prices elsewhere.

I can’t afford college visits. What can I do instead?

If you can’t afford to visit colleges, you should research as much as possible online. Good places to look for information include the website of the school in question, the College Search by the College Board, the U.S. News and World Reports rankings and reviews, and individual college information websites, including CollegeVine and our Ultimate Guides. Your guidance counselor can also help point you in the direction of informative online resources.

Additionally, many college websites have a variety of tools that you can use to get a sense of the school’s academic and social culture. These include admissions blogs written by recent admits and current students, and virtual tours with extensive overviews of the campus, individual buildings, and traditions.

You should also look into local college fairs and information sessions. You may be able to talk to representatives from the school and/or alumni to get a better sense of what it feels like to attend. If you do not know of any local events, you can get in direct contact with the school’s admissions office to speak to someone personally via phone or email. (Additionally, if they offer off-campus alumni interviews, you should take advantage of this opportunity to meet former students who can share stories about their experience with you.)

It may also help to visit a more local school. Even if it isn’t your top choice (or on your potential schools list), it may be helpful to visit a college campus to take note of what you like and do not like about the atmosphere. That way, you have a more defined idea of what appeals to you in a college and can make a more informed choice when you are deciding where to go.

Finally, sometimes colleges offer special visit programs called fly-in programs. These are campus visits with all costs covered by the college specifically for low-income and first-generation students who would otherwise be unable to visit. These are available for both prospective and admitted students, so you should apply for a time when you will be most able to take the time to visit (if you have a lot of fall activities, it may be better to go after you have been admitted, or vice versa). These programs vary by school, however, so you must check the website of each school to determine if you are eligible for the fly-in programs and how you can apply. As with all parts of the admissions process, it is always better to start early because they may run out of availability.

The Take-away

If you are a first-generation student, the cost of visiting colleges can be hefty, but not being able to visit colleges will not be a barrier to getting into college. You will not be hurt in the application process if you do not make a campus visit, and you may still be able to visit if you are accepted. Plus, if you budget carefully and strategize your visits, you may be able to afford the trip after all. If you do plan to visit schools, check out our CollegeVine guides to college visits, “College Visits: When (And If) to Make Them” and “5 Questions to Ask Your College Tour Guide.”

For more information about being a first-generation student and how that affects the college application process, read our guides, “How Does Being a First-Generation College Student Affect My Application?” and “Helping Parents Understand College Applications: A Guide for First-Generation College Applicants.” And, finally, whether or not you visit a campus, get excited for college!

Julia Mearsheimer

Julia Mearsheimer

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Julia Mearsheimer attends the University of Chicago. She is considering majoring in Philosophy, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or Political Science, but remains undecided. In addition to writing, she enjoys listening to Nina Simone and baking bread.
Julia Mearsheimer