Whether you are early in the college prep and search process or are sorting between acceptances and financial aid awards, there are some college costs that you should be aware of that, without planning, can become unpleasant surprises. While colleges have become more predictable when it comes to managing the costs—tuition and fees, room and board—that you see on a term bill, other costs are not so easily predictable.
When comparing colleges, look for their Total Cost of Attendance on their Web sites. Some schools, Colorado State University being one example, do a good job at explaining college costs. Others provide you with information if you use their Net Price Calculators. Some of these estimates are admittedly guesses. As that Colorado State University page will show you, costs can depend on your year in college, chosen major, living situation and personal lifestyle.
Within direct charges at a state university, the ones that you see on the bill, be careful to check tuition and fees not only for a freshman, but also for students who are juniors and seniors in the individual colleges. It is quite common for a state university to assess higher tuition and fees for students enrolled in their business school, college of engineering and health science programs. The University of Pittsburgh, among schools that are popular where I live in New Jersey, follows this practice as do Rutgers-New Brunswick, Penn State and Temple, among others. Most colleges have held tuition and fee increases below four percent per year. However, the “bump” may be higher after a student declares a major. It might even exceed the additional $1,000 that s/he may borrow from the Federal Direct Student Loan program to cover college costs.
The costs of books will be an unpleasant surprise, especially for families who are sending their first child to college. High schools never ask their students to pay for books, lab expenses or software. They also received discounts per book that individual college students are unlikely to get. You will get all sorts of advice to buy used, buy digital or rent books. For some classes, especially those where you are never likely to highlight the book or use it for another class, those options will work fine. But some courses, especially in accounting, math and sciences. use the same book over more than one semester. For those books, buy new, and let your student make all the notes they need inside or outside of them. The same is true for lab supplies and software.
Transportation estimates will not be the same from school to school, even among colleges that are located in the same state. They will reflect the geography of the student body. A school with a residential campus that draws most of its student body from their state or close neighbors is likely to provide low estimates for transportation costs for travel home or around the community. It is also likely that a residential school will try to discourage freshmen from bringing cars to campus, possibly not allow them at all. Expenses for a car on campus are not considered essential by any residential college, unless a student is a commuter who lives with family. Commuters who attend schools in cities might also need to consider mass transit fares in their college costs. High school students in New York, for example, can purchase discount passes for mass transit at their schools. College students in these cities cannot.
Food costs may appear to go down after the first year when students elect to purchase a less expensive meal plan or have no meal plan at all. That may work fine for those who know how to cook or opt to eat foods that are not the best alternatives to proteins such as meat, fish or poultry. Here is one suggestion. Take your monthly food bill, divide it by the number of people in your family, then multiply that number by ten for the number of months in a college year. Then add any allowance that you might have given your children over those same ten months for meals and others things that they buy on their own. That might be a more reliable estimate for food over the course of an academic year than your college will provide. It could be less than the costs of a meal plan, or maybe more.
It’s not always easy, and its never fun, for a student to manage college costs, especially after they have earned some credits towards a degree and have their direction set on a major. But as you begin your search or choose between a very short list of schools, you can consider these four costs before you deposit.
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