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College and the Hidden Cost of Attendance

cost of attendance

It’s no secret that paying for college is expensive. The high price tags of tuition and housing have become an expected part of higher education. The numerous hidden expenses that go into your cost of attendance that you and your child will need to be prepared for are far less well known.

Paying for College Before You’ve Even Chosen Your School

By the time you get the first bill from your child’s college, it is entirely possible that you will have already spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. First, there are application fees. It’s prudent to apply to multiple schools; with the national average application fee hovering somewhere around $40 (as much as $90 for some schools), the application process can become quite pricey, and we’re just getting started. The next thing to budget for is at least one (if not several) campus visits. While you’ll probably get the tour and lunch for free, there are a plethora of costs you’ll be expected to pay. These costs, as well as some tips on how to subvert some of them are further detailed in an article specifically about campus visits that you can find here.

Paying the Total Cost of Attendance

When you receive your award letter from a school, it will present to you a Total Cost of Attendance. First and foremost, you should always assume that this number is an under-estimate. There are various reasons the estimate comes up short, but the predominant factor is a lack of specificity. The expenses most regularly considered in the total cost of attendance are tuition, room and board, textbooks, and the ever nebulous “other expenses.” These other expenses can be broken down into two categories: academic costs and personal costs.

Hidden Academic Costs

It’s a given that your student is going to need basic school supplies like pens, pencils, notebooks and calculators. Some classes may necessitate more specialized materials that you will likely have no way of knowing about until you receive the syllabus for the course. In this 21st century world, laptops have also become commonplace in the classroom.

What you might not expect, is that campuses often charge students to use computer lab printers. Should your child take a course that requires lab time, extra administrative fees will be tacked on to your bill. If your student decides they don’t like a particular class after the drop period (which can be as short as a few days), you’re looking at another charge coming your way. There will also be library fees. It can start to feel like they are getting you coming and going, but that’s only because they are.

Hidden Personal Costs

You’ll probably budget for the natural cost of living expenses like clothing and furnishing and your child is likely still covered under your health insurance plan. But what about transportation? If your student commutes to school you’ll almost certainly need to spring for a parking pass and/or spot. You’ve budgeted a few hundred dollars for the meal plan, but what if your kid wants to order a pizza or get a hotdog at the game? What if your son or daughter wants to join a Fraternity or Sorority? There are 168 hours in a week, for the average college student only 12-18 of them are comprised of attending class. Even factoring in studying (hopefully) and sleep, that leaves your child with a fairly sizable amount of free time.

It’s difficult to put a number on the hidden personal costs because you can never really know what will come up. Your best bet is to expect it to be higher than you expect.

Beyond the Total Cost of Attendance

Beyond the “other expenses” lie even more expenses that you’ll need to be prepared for. It may seem redundant, but make sure your student keeps their grades up. Should they fail a class, not only will they have to pay to retake it, but it could also damage their financial aid package. Speaking of financial aid, there is a chance that you’ll be offered more than you might need, but only accept what you need. The more you take, the more interest you’ll have to pay back later.

Finally, right as you and your student are on the home stretch with the finish-line in sight, they get you one last time with graduation fees. On the bright side, you get to keep the cap and gown.

Budgeting for college is far from an exact science. Everyone’s experience is going to be different. It would be helpful if colleges were more forthright with what the actual “total” cost of attendance would be in their award letters so that you could have a more realistic picture of what to expect financially.

In an effort to bridge that gap, our financial team always provides the worst case scenario to make sure families are prepared for these hidden costs. We can help you to create a financial plan to save and pay for college. Click here to schedule a free consultation with our financial team.

Jim Slowik

Jim Slowik strategizes for families of all incomes to leave no stone unturned to reduce college costs. Jim has worked for over 30 years in marketing and management with 20 of those years in financially related industries. As a parent of college students, Jim understands the challenges of navigating the college process. He holds a Bachelors of Marketing from North Central College.

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