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Understanding the Real Cost of College


When eval­u­at­ing col­lege costs, the first num­bers peo­ple usu­ally turn to are tuition, room, and board. While the tuition fig­ures listed in most finan­cial aid guides are fairly accu­rate, the aver­age room and board fig­ures can some­times be off. Also, there are many expenses that aren’t always dis­cussed, but you need to consider.

The Direct Costs of Col­lege
Direct costs are those expenses that gen­er­ally are paid to the col­lege and are specif­i­cally education-related.

Col­lege Tuition
Tuition is fairly sim­ple to under­stand; it’s the amount the col­lege requires to attend class. At some col­leges, there’s a flat tuition amount regard­less of how many credit hours are taken. At oth­ers, the amount depends on the num­ber of credit hours. The first thing you’ll want to do when adding up the total cost is put down the exact tuition amount. If the school bases the amount on num­ber of credit hours, assume 15 hours per term.

Col­lege Admin­is­tra­tive Fees
There are some fees required of all stu­dents and some that may have to be paid sim­ply because of the major your child chooses. For exam­ple, sci­ence majors may have to pay a refund­able lab break­age deposit of $50 to $100 per lab course. Assume that you’ll get none of this amount refunded, since even the most care­ful stu­dent breaks a beaker occa­sion­ally. Some col­leges may also have an optional stu­dent ser­vices fee, depend­ing upon whether you choose to par­tic­i­pate in cer­tain activities.

Books and Sup­plies
Here again, this fig­ure will vary accord­ing to the major. For exam­ple, sci­ence books can be extra­or­di­nar­ily expen­sive ($75 or more for some), and there could be ten or more books required for one Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture course. In addi­tion, there may be lab work­books, pho­to­copied arti­cles, and study guides that don’t always get fig­ured in. While the finan­cial aid office usu­ally pro­vides an aver­age annual amount, this fig­ure is apt to be low. Esti­mate between $500 and $700 per year.

Room and Board Costs at Col­lege
This expense is depen­dent on whether you live in a dorm, off-campus apart­ment, group house, relative’s home, etc. The dorm costs may also vary depend­ing on whether the room is a sin­gle, dou­ble, triple, or quad bed­room. You won’t know the actual amount until after you’ve been assigned a spot. For cal­cu­lat­ing pur­poses, use the aver­age fig­ure the col­lege pro­vides. Unfor­tu­nately, many col­leges lump room and board charges together, which can be mis­lead­ing, but the cost of dorm rooms or rent usu­ally can be cal­cu­lated accu­rately. The range is typ­i­cally between $3,000 and $4,500 a year.

If you live on cam­pus, you may have options as to meal plans. Some schools require that all meals be eaten in the school din­ing cen­ter. Oth­ers offer vari­able meal plans, where you sign up for any num­ber of meals per week. What’s best? You may not need three meals a day, seven days a week. So if you can, choose the plan that meets your needs. Remem­ber, the school’s esti­mated board cost will include only meal plans, not snacks, social­iz­ing, or splurges.

The Col­lege Costs You Don’t Think About
Trans­porta­tion and Travel
This expense includes both the cost of com­mut­ing back and forth from the local res­i­dence to classes and the cost of get­ting to and from home dur­ing vaca­tions and breaks. For a stu­dent liv­ing on cam­pus, the trans­porta­tion or com­mut­ing amount is prob­a­bly zero, unless you have a car. If a car is involved, there are park­ing fees, insur­ance pay­ments, and gas, oil, and main­te­nance costs.

The other trans­porta­tion amount, referred to here as “travel,” has to do with going between your home and the col­lege. Every fam­ily will have a dif­fer­ent amount, depend­ing on whether the col­lege is clear across the coun­try or next door, whether you come home once, twice, or a dozen times, and whether the dis­tance can be dri­ven or not. We can’t pro­vide you with aver­ages, but we will say that there are ways to make this fig­ure lower, such as stu­dent dis­counts, pub­lic trans­porta­tion, and ride-shares.

If you live on cam­pus, you may have options as to meal plans. Some schools require that all meals be eaten in the school din­ing cen­ter. Oth­ers offer vari­able meal plans, where you sign up for any num­ber of meals per week. What’s best? You may not need three meals a day, seven days a week. So if you can, choose the plan that meets your needs. Remem­ber, the school’s esti­mated board cost will include only meal plans, not snacks, social­iz­ing, or splurges.

Per­sonal Expenses
These expenses include inci­den­tal expen­di­tures such as laun­dry and entertainment.

Health Cov­er­age
You will prob­a­bly be able to remain on your par­ents’ health insur­ance plan while a stu­dent, even when liv­ing away from home. So, your fam­ily can assume health expenses will be sim­i­lar to those of recent years. Don’t dis­count a few extra expenses, though.

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