Five Common, Yet Unexpected, College Costs

$100 Bills Graduation time once again. I love hearing about college plans from students I’ve worked with over the last couple years. And I really enjoy the college graduation updates from past clients (although I start to feel old when I see some.) This time of year seems so full of promise as families prepare for new schools and graduates seek new jobs. Sometimes in the middle of celebration and excitement of expectation, we can forget to plan for reality. Everyone knows college is expensive. Most families preparing to send a student to college for the first time in the fall take into account the standard cost of tuition, housing, and food, but there are a number of often-unexpected college costs families should plan for. Some families are fortunate enough to be able to work these unexpected costs into their monthly budgets. Unfortunately, each year we see students forced to withdraw from college because they can no longer afford to continue. Here are some of the expected “unexpected” costs of college that you should plan to pay.

1. Fees

There are expected fees every semester: facilities charges, computer lab fees, or library fines. But there are some fees you may be surprised to find on their bill—recreation center charges for online classes, athletic passes regardless of your interest in sports, and class materials charges that are not listed in the course catalog. These added charges can add hundreds of dollars to a student’s college costs every term. You may be able to negotiate some charges by calling the university, but many are non-negotiable. I bitterly remember paying hundreds of dollars per semester in graduate school for the recreation center on the main campus. I never set foot on the main campus because all my classes were elsewhere. No luck in getting those charges reversed

2. Travel

Every college has an online cost calculator that includes student travel to and from school. However, in reality, the cost of travel can be much higher than expected. As the cost of gas and airline tickets changes, your college transportation costs will change. Students attending college far from home may encounter significant fluctuations in the cost of airline tickets, and they also may find it expensive to transport their belongings to and from campus each year.

3. Textbooks

Textbook costs are another expense that families plan for; often, though, they’re taken by surprise by how much more the actual expenses are than their preliminary estimates anticipated. The cost of books varies depending on the type of class. A student taking biology may find the single required textbook costs $170. Another student taking a literature class may find the paperback novels are much less expensive at $10 to $20 each, but with 14 required novels for a single class, it adds up. Students can expect to spend $500 to $900 per term on textbooks. Students can save by comparison shopping and purchasing used books when possible. Renting books may offer a money saving alternative. I’m not a fan of using digital textbooks exclusively because I don’t find students retain the information in the same way, so I’d personally use that option as a last resort.

4. Parking and Car Expenses

Students who had a car throughout high school understand that there are usual operating expenses in keeping a car. What many families don’t anticipate is the expense of parking and keeping a car on most college campuses. Some schools have ample parking and hand out parking permits at no charge. However, students living on small, crowded campuses or in busy urban areas may find the cost of parking is $200-$500 per month. (Yes, you read that right—per month!) When parking is a problem on a particular campus, many students look for short-cuts then find themselves with parking tickets, and over the course of the semester those charges add up. The student who agreed to the low-cost lot behind the stadium may be tempted to skip class or park “illegally” when the weather is bad or when he is running late. If parking isn’t free at your college, find out what options you have and budget accurately. 

5. Greek Life

On paper, the cost of participating in Greek life—sororities and fraternities—can seem minimal. Each chapter will often have annual dues, and there may be additional fees associated with living in the house. The unexpected costs, however, can quickly add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per semester. My neighbor just brought her daughter home from the daughter’s freshman year in college. They found the monthly sorority charges were DOUBLE the pre-rush estimate given to parents. Fortunately, the added expenses didn’t break their budget, but not all families will have money available in the middle of the school year for things like added sorority costs. Keep in mind some of the added cost of Greek life is optional, but may not feel like it at the time. Lots of sororities and fraternities participate in special events on and off campus. Students may have to purchase tickets to these events, appropriate attire (no one wants to wear the same dress to all the dances), and make donations to their sorority or fraternity’s causes. Often these costs don’t make it into the planning budget, but they should. To get an idea of the actual cost of participating in Greek life, students should ask current members about their expenses over the past year or two and plan for additional “social” costs throughout the year.

6. Snacking

Most entering freshmen and their families understand that some degree of snacking takes place in college, but they usually underestimate the amount of money college students spend eating outside of the regular meal plan. College students will find that vending machines around campus can be linked to their dining points or will accept credit cards. This makes it very easy to swipe the card to get a soda or a snack in between classes, but doing so each day adds up. Late-night pizza delivery during study sessions or the daily iced mocha at the coffee house seems typical of a college student, but can add hundreds of dollars to a student’s cost of college per year.   It is important for students and parents to accurately budget the amount of money they will need to pay for each year of college education. Underestimating purchases such as snacks or textbooks or failing to account for potentially high costs of travel, parking, or participation in activities such as Greek life can leave students thousands of dollars short at the end of each academic year. What unexpected college costs have you encountered? Leave a comment (see box above).  ]]>

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