Higher education is big business, with college costs averaging $13,000 more per year now than they did in the 1970s. Given that most parents don’t want to see their children waste money on a bad fit, they may feel pressure to find out everything they can about a school before they commit.

I can’t blame them. I have invested hundreds of hours helping my kids in their college research, from watching YouTube videos to attending online webinars to chatting with admissions reps at college fairs. These activities, while valuable, don’t really tell me what a school is like. It doesn’t help my student get a feel for the culture of the school and how professors and students interact and collaborate.

Fortunately, there are several ways to get a look under the hood of a college or university before signing on the dotted line. Here are some of the methods I recommend, with many proving to be amazing experiences for my own kids.

Dual Enrollment Courses

Homeschoolers are already savvy when it comes to taking college courses while still in high school, but not everyone sees it as a way to “test out” the institution. For example, many students in my area take free classes from the metro area community college nearest us, even though few have the intention of going there afte graduation.

With several private liberal arts colleges on our list, we did some digging and found that three of the schools offered dual enrollment online courses to high schoolers. We took advantage of one that offered free tuition, and my son learned so much about the rigor, how professors engaged with students, and even how the grading and course technology worked at the school.

When it came time to decide on a school, we didn’t ultimately choose this college, but it was a close second and one that younger siblings will be sure to consider.

Summer Camps

If your student has ever wanted to blow things up, melt metal, or print out a model of a human heart, I have good news for you! STEM summer camps are just one example of how colleges are reaching future students in interesting and lowcost ways. These camps can be a day, a week, or even longer and may even take place 100 percent online. Taught by actual faculty, they may also help students build better resumes when it comes time to apply to schools.

STEM isn’t the only option, either. Whether it’s an art camp, business class, or culinary school boot camp, colleges are pulling out all the stops. Look for camps geared toward high schoolers to get a better look at the facilities; some camps for younger students may be held off-site at parks or community centers. If you’re not sure, ask how much campus time and faculty interaction will be offered for each camp.

Activities Hosting

Where is your next forensics tournament taking place? What about that youth retreat? Colleges are fast becoming the ultimate destination for student events of all types, giving attendees an intimate look at how these campuses operate. Admittedly, things aren’t going to run just like they would during the school year, but teens can often get a good look at the dorms, learn about campus security, get a taste of the cafeteria salad bar, and learn how long it takes to get from one building to the next. These are valuable details when envisioning if your student could live there for four years.

Don’t Dismiss the Traditional Tools

The options above don’t have to take the place of a formal college visit, and I still highly recommend reaching out to the admissions office as soon as you think a school might make the wish list. Since group tours can be very scripted, ask for a personal tour, if possible. The one-on-one attention and individualized itinerary will help students avoid feeling like just face in the crowd. You’ll also get access to staff most likely to answer your questions, helping you feel good about the process and giving your student the best chance at due

With college requiring so much time and money, it’s on us as parents to help our students make the most informed decisions possible. By thinking creatively about ways to enrich you child’s learning and scout out some schools, you can get two very important jobs done at once and have fun doing it.

Want to hear more from Linsey? Check out episode 21 of the Homeschool Compass Podcast, as well as Linsey’s book, Homeschool Hacks: How to Give Your Kids a Great Education Without Losing Your Job (or Your Mind)

Copyright 2023, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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Linsey Knerl is a homeschool mom of six, a freelance copywriter, and the author of Homeschool Hacks: How to Give Your Kid a Great Education without Losing Your Job (or Your Mind).