Inside: Cost of Attending prices offered by colleges often do not tell the whole story. Don’t forget to create a budget for these additional unexpected expenses.
When the list price of four years of college is likely to cost as much as your first house, you might expect that number to be all-inclusive.
But the total “cost of attending” (COA) a school states is often even more than the sum of tuition plus room and board. According to the College Board, additional costs (often called indirect expenses) average $4,110 for full-time students at private schools. Some of these can be reduced with careful planning and budgeting; others are fixed and can be a surprise when the first tuition bill arrives.
You might also like to read: 10 Hidden Benefits of Community Colleges You May Not Have Considered
How to Determine the COA
Colleges and universities have their own formulas for determining this cost, and the methods are not uniform across all schools (something you need to consider when comparing aid packages).
Some schools post their COA and/or a cost calculator to help you estimate your “net cost,” though housing and dining plans as well as individual spending habits will impact what you actually spend (we all know how much teenagers can eat, and then there are those lattes!)
As you are looking at scholarships, merit aid, and loans, make sure you consider the following:
Course and Activity Fees Can Add Up
It’s not advertised in the course descriptions, but some classes are more expensive than others, and these hidden college costs can surprise you. Charges such as labs and equipment or field trip fees may show up on your tuition bill, potentially adding $1,000 or more to your costs.
Other fees may include health insurance (this may be optional if you already have coverage), athletic center fees, and one-time fees for field trips or things such as orientation and graduation costs. While optional, there are also dues and fees for students participating in Greek Life and certain extra-curricular activities, some of which may require specialized equipment or attire.
Consider keeping a google sheet that you share with your student to both estimate and then record actual spending during the first year. If you are working against a budget, you can make decisions together to determine what is a necessity and what is a nice-to-have.
School Supplies and Textbooks Vary in Cost
The college bookstore bill will make you yearn for the days of a shopping cart full of binders, notebooks, and a specific, very expensive calculator. You may still need these, but a single book may cost as much as your entire cartful did just a year ago.
Expect the total semester cost to be in the hundreds or even over $1,000 for some majors.
It’s possible to save some money by renting or buying books online, but make sure used books include any necessary online codes (and don’t forget to return rentals).
Cheapest Textbooks is a good resource to compare prices, though college bookstores also offer rentals and a limited number of used books at prices that may be worth the convenience, especially if they need to be returned (if for example, a class is dropped).
Many students have told us that they do not buy any textbooks or materials until they receive final confirmation from their professors. Sometimes a teacher will find resources online that can supplement or replace an expensive textbook.
Also, don’t forget that it’s impossible for a student to get through college without a decent laptop and other tech-related gear. There are times students can share these resources, but consider investing in tech insurance or support in the instance your student’s laptop breaks right before a big test.
Transportation Is an Important Budget Factor
Unless your student can walk to college, schools, and restaurants, you will have transportation costs.
While we talk about our kids going away to college, the truth is with several breaks, home can feel like a revolving door during the college years. For travel more than a few hours, add the potential costs of meals and overnight accommodations. If your student goes to college more than 300+ miles away, you should consider budgeting at least one to two airplane tickets per year for emergencies. The pandemic, major weather events, or social issues could cause your student to have an impromptu visit home.
Transportation costs at school also need to be considered. Some schools have multiple locations, and most students occasionally leave campus. Schools that allow cars on campus likely require parking permits, and at least one parking ticket is to be expected. Some schools offer shuttle services which may or may not have an additional fee. Other options are public transportation or ride-share services.
The rising cost of transportation can have a major effect on students, so it’s important to think this one through to ensure getting to class is not an issue.
Setting a budget for food and personal expenses
Even with a dining plan, most students will spend money on food, such as snacks and microwavable food, plus the occasional meal out. A new study by My eLearning World indicates that the average college student will spend $294.06 per month on groceries this year, or $2,352 for two full semesters, PLUS $369.36 eating out or $2,955 for two full semesters. Make sure you set clear parameters with your child on how much money they should budget for their non-dining-plan food expenditures.
Other personal expenses, such as toiletries and laundry, can quickly add up. (While some schools offer free laundry facilities, most charge, on average $1.50 per use, plus the cost of detergent and softeners.)
Then there is the clothing. Every college student wants shockingly-pricey college-branded clothing, but those moving to a new climate may need an entire seasonal wardrobe. Southern students attending schools in the north are unlikely to own winter coats, boots, gloves, and scarves.
There is also the “fun” money you may want to allocate for your student. This includes a trip to the movies or another outing. An on-campus job can help give your teen a little extra spending money so you don’t have to include that in your budget.
If your student has a credit card or you took out a loan to cover personal expenses, don’t forget about fees or payments you may need to make as well.
Off-campus housing can come with several hidden college costs
Many schools guarantee housing, at least for freshmen, but many expect students to find their own housing after freshman year, or students may want to live off-campus for a specific reason, such as a job or desire to live in a certain kind of environment.
If your student will live on campus for four years, the cost usually goes up a little each year, but you’ll have a clear estimate of what you will need to pay.
But off-campus costs are less predictable, especially if your student attends school in a high-value real estate area. Off-campus housing may be university- or privately owned and rent may cover some or all utilities (electric, gas, internet, cable, water, and trash). Renter’s insurance is a good idea and may be required. (A parents’ homeowner’s policy may cover possessions in a dorm.)
While many schools will allow off-campus students to pay for a meal plan, it will likely be more convenient and possibly less expensive to purchase and cook their own food. (Check out these easy recipes for teens to help them learn how to cook.)
Knowing the extra costs helps you plan better
College costs are staggering. But on the bright side, your monthly food budget will be a little less with your teen out of the house.
Spend a little time coaching your child on smart spending and teach them some basic life skills, and try to build an emergency fund. These habits will not only reduce costs but will serve them well for a lifetime.
Are you in the thick of raising your tweens and teens? You may like this book by Whitney Fleming, the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens: Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love: Essays about Raising Teens in Today’s Complex, Chaotic World.
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