Costs of College Beyond Tuition

Almost every financial and collegiate website has a tuition calculator. MSN Money’s asks how much you have saved, how much the intended school currently costs, the rate the tuition has been increasing per year, the number of years until your child matriculates at this intended school, the number of years you expect to take him or her to graduate, and the percentage interest you are getting on your savings and your tax rate. Then through mathematical magic, the calculator tells you how much you will need and helps you try to create a savings plan.

Calculators often do not take into consideration is the extensive, non-tuition expenses that are also the costs of going to college. These costs include things like room and board, textbooks, social activities fees, library deposits and transportation.  In some schools’ annual collegiate catalogs, estimates of these expenses are listed after information about tuition and fees. For example, the University of Pittsburgh says, “Students can expect to incur additional expenses for books and supplies ($600-$1000 per year), transportation, and personal miscellaneous items. These expenses vary, depending on personal circumstances.”  The expenses will also vary depending on what city or town the college is in and your son or daughter’s intended course of study.

Let’s explore a few of these mandatory expenses in-depth and the variables that go into each one.

  • Room and Board. Will your teen be living on campus with a meal plan or off campus and have a meal plan or off campus and on his own for food? Campuses charge generally a couple of thousand to a few thousand dollars for room per term, depending on whether your teen will live with or without roommates. Meal plans, sometimes called dining dollars, often range from $1,500 to almost $3,000 depending on whether you expect your student to eat three meals a day on campus or one meal a day on campus.
  • Textbooks. Every year the cost of textbooks goes up but this is one area where it might be possible to shave some expenses. To save money, encourage your teen to purchase used book from, or any of the other online textbook websites, or from the campus bookstore. (Just remember if ordering online to order early enough, preferably before the semester starts, if the professors’ syllabi are online, as sometimes books can take a few weeks to arrive.) A single new book for a business or pre-law course may cost hundreds of dollars; this is why used books can be essential—as long as the edition is the required one. IPad and Kindle editions, where available, can also cut costs.
  • Computers and software. Having one’s own computer isn’t mandatory, though it is convenient (which is why some schools are now including laptops in their tuition costs). But if your teen’s school doesn’t do this, most universities have a computer lab where students can type assignments, conduct online research and update their Facebook pages. If you opt to get your teen a new computer, make sure you also purchase the needed software programs, such as word processing, spreadsheet and presentation programs, and any specialized programs that a specific major would require, such as Sibelius for music composers.
  • Lab fees, white coats, private lessons, classroom incidentals.  If your teen is a science major or an art major, lab fees per semester will be charged on top of tuition. Your teen may also need specific clothing or supplies for specific classes, such as white coats and goggles for chemistry labs, or paints and brushes for art classes or a special camera for photography class. Private lessons may or may not be included in regular tuition.  
  • Snacks.  Snacks are important to the wellbeing of college students, especially during exam cram time. (This is also why care packages from relatives are so welcome, especially if they contain quarters for laundry and food to quell the late-night munchies.) Pizza money is included in this category.
  • Insurance. All schools insist that students have insurance, either by parents providing proof that their students are covered under private insurance or by parents purchasing school offered health insurance. Charles Schwab, in a brochure called “Talking to Kids: Costs Beyond Tuition”, said to also check out whether or not your teen is still covered under your car insurance while he is off at school.
  • Travel/Transportation. How will he and how much will it cost for your teen to get from school to home? Will he need a car while he’s a student, and if so, how much is a parking permit? Will he need a bus or subway pass? Insurance? Will he need to travel to a part-time job? Does he plan to do a semester aboard or a semester at sea? These are all part of the expenses in travel and transportation.
  • Personal care (hygiene things, haircuts, etc.) Lastly are all of the incidentals not covered above, from clothing to personal care items, haircuts to the latest accessory your daughter just has to have. All of these can add up to a lot of unexpected expense.

As you shell out the thousands of dollars a year for your child’s college education, hold onto what Aristotle said, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”

One optional expense that some student might consider is Greek life. If your teen decides to pledge a fraternity or a sorority expect to pay hundreds of dollars a semester in fees, in addition to a large initiation fee. Greek dues and social fees vary from chapter to chapter and from organization to organization. This might be something to investigate and to budget before your child decides to go Greek.