For families with teenagers, summer vacations are a good time to include college campus visits. Personal visits are the best way for a student to experience campus vibes, and to get an initial gut-feeling about the place that could be their home for four years. Official campus tours, often led by enthusiastic student guides, usually include the library, academic buildings, cafeterias, the student union, and a dorm room. If it is a school that a student is seriously considering applying to, a visit with a financial aid officer is a worthwhile effort.

Be sure to ask the financial aid officer about potential financial aid awards. According to the College Board, the average four-year total cost of attendance (includes tuition, fees, room and board based on 2013-14 rates), is $73,564 for a public institutions, and $163,668 for a private, non-profit schools. However these are sticker prices; about two thirds of students receive aid in the form of scholarships, grants, work study positions, or student loans.

Prepare in advance by studying the financial aid office’s website pages; find out what types of awards are offered, qualifications, and how to apply. Understand the terms of renewal for these awards. Find out if the institution meets the full need of admitted students, and if so, the percentage of students whose full needs are met. Find out the number and average amount of awards granted, and the academic profile (GPA, test scores, rank) for students receiving these awards. Note that very few colleges meet full financial need.

Targeted academic profiles for merit aid and grants vary by college and by individual scholarships. Awards are used to attract students at or near the top of the college’s desired academic profile. Other factors that may be considered include leadership, service, athletics, activities, or being the first in a family to attend college. Additionally, challenging Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses may improve admissions and scholarship chances and result in college credits, which equate to tuition and time savings. Ask about the school’s policy for granting college credits for these courses, and the minimum scores required to earn credit.

Most schools require only the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), but find out if the more thorough College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile will be required and how your family’s assets such as 529 plans (if applicable) and home equity will be assessed.

Ask about average annual tuition increases in the past, as well as future tuition projections. Some schools offer programs to lock in or limit tuition increases. Don’t forget to consider housing costs; learn about housing availability, requirements to live on campus, and the costs both on and off campus.

Students and parents alike should take notes during these meetings and the campus visit. Understanding the costs, along with determining the right fit, will help your student build a college list that includes schools where he or she can thrive and stay within the family budget.

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Ferah Aziz is a college coach with launchphase2. Visit or call 720-340-8111 to learn more about coaching for college bound students, and success coaching for college students. P. Carol Jones is the author of “Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able.” Visit to read excerpts and to follow her blog.

Photo credit: College Fair 31 by  COD Newsroom. Licensed under CC 2.0