The words “free” and “college” don’t often appear in the same sentence, but this time they just might. Many families don’t realize that a number of colleges may offer financial help to students to make an admission visit possible. Not all colleges offer the option and not all students will qualify, but the option is worth investigating.
Each college that offers a visit reimbursement program or option handles it differently and may give it a different name, but typical programs may be referred to as fly-in programs, travel grants, travel scholarships, or funded campus visits. Colleges most likely, but not exclusively, to offer such programs may be more selective liberal arts colleges, although some research universities (such as Dartmouth or Yale) offer programs for students interested in particular majors. They have names that include descriptions such as Fly-in Weekend, Diversity Overnight Program, Weekend Immersion, Diversity Achievement Program, or include words such as Access, Discover and Explore.
Who is eligible?
Fly-in programs and travel grants are available largely to high school seniors who would find the cost of a visit prohibitive and to students who are underrepresented on the campus such as first generation students, students of diverse backgrounds, minority students and/or low income students.
Most programs are competitive, highly selective and limited in size. They require students to submit an application, unofficial transcript and test scores. Some also require a certain high school GPA and a guidance counselor or teacher nomination. Others may require that students be Pell Grant eligible or at least demonstrate a need for financial aid. Most programs may require a separate essay. Completing the essay may deter some students, but can definitely be worth the work – both for the potential outcome of receiving the grant and as practice for college application essays.
At some institutions programs may be limited to specific majors, minority populations, or first generation students. However, some institutions may also be attempting to diversify their student body geographically and so may offer assistance to students from a particular area of the country. Grants are most often given to students who have not visited the school previously.
Most fly-in programs will fund the entire cost of a visit to the school – transportation from the student’s home city, meals, and housing (usually in a college residence hall). Some programs fund only students who live out-of-state or a certain distance from the school. Grants are individual – for the student only: parents and family members are not included.
Colleges encourage students attending a fly-in program to travel on their own. While this may seem intimidating to the student, and a bit nerve-wracking for parents, this independence is excellent practice for students. Making the trip from home to college on their own also allows students to experience first-hand what the logistics of traveling to and from this college will be like should they apply and be accepted. For many students, this will be a factor in deciding where to apply.
What do fly-in programs include?
Each school organizes its fly-in program differently. Most are overnight programs providing students an opportunity to stay in a school residence hall with a designated student host. Programs provide meals in student dining centers. Students have the opportunity to attend classes, college activities, admission information sessions, and have an individual interview with admission staff with an opportunity to ask specific questions. Students usually receive significant individual attention.
Fly-in programs may occur on a weekend, but many also include at least one week-day so students can attend classes. Most occur in mid-to-late fall. They may be connected to a more general college open house or admission program for other students. This is a busy time for high school seniors, so planning ahead is important. The opportunity is worth making time in the senior’s busy schedule. Deadlines for applications may be in mid-to-late summer.
Students who attend fly-in programs or who receive travel grants are under no obligation to apply to the school or to attend if they are admitted. However, acceptance to and attendance at a program may mean that the school will waive the application fee – and will give extra attention to the student’s application. Acceptance rates for students attending these invitational programs are often higher than the standard rate for the school.
A few colleges may consider students for travel grants on a case-by-case basis and may not link to a special program. Some colleges may also offer grants for accepted students who are making final decisions about their choice of college. If there is nothing on the college website, call the admission office and ask whether they offer any assistance.
If your student is interested in attending a particular school but the cost of visiting the school seems prohibitive, contact the admission office to discuss the options. A campus visit is an essential element of the decision making process as your student tries to determine a good college fit. Always ask. But begin thinking about options early and plan ahead so your student will be ready to apply before senior year.