Hidden Costs of College

Congratulations! You have four years of tuition, room and board stashed away in your 529 plan and your child hasn’t even graduated from high school yet. Now you can breathe easily, right? Well … maybe, maybe not.

The published cost of college attendance can vary substantially from the actual cost for numerous reasons. The primary contributor to this variance; a surprisingly small number of students graduate in four years. In fact, only 60% of students graduate within six years at public institutions according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Now before you blame your child for taking too long to get that degree (and blowing your budget), understand that getting the classes needed to fulfill degree requirements at a large university can be a daunting, if not impossible, Hunger Games-like experience resulting in an extended stay. Changing majors, transferring schools and required remedial classes are other common contributors to a longer-than-expected graduation timeline.

One cost-effective way to manage the timeline is for your child to plan on taking required classes they couldn’t get during the regular school year at their local community college during the summer. Budget for this (hopefully minimal) additional expense and have the classes pre-approved so your student receives credit for their work. Also, insist that your student meet with their advisor before scheduling classes to confirm they are on the right path to meeting their degree requirements. Now that you are on the four-year plan, it’s time to understand some of the other hidden costs of college.

While wandering the park-like grounds and admiring the architecture of the colleges on your tour list, it can be easy to forget a very important question: Is this a comprehensive fee? Quite often the answer is yes at a private college and hard to ascertain at a public school. To help compare apples and oranges, take a checklist of possible extra fees or expenses on your tour so you ask the same questions everywhere.

  • Are there class-specific fees? For example, lab fees for science classes or studio fees for art or music classes.
  • Are there differential fees for specific majors?
  • Does the school charge more for additional credit hours? Some schools have a 50% tuition surcharge for credits in excess of degree requirements.
  • Is tutoring an additional expense? Is the tutoring remedial only?
  • Are there use fees for athletic facilities, the health center, and tech support?
  • Is there a fee for printing?
  • Can you rent textbooks at the campus bookstore?
  • What percentage of the student body lives on-campus vs. off-campus? If your student lives off-campus budget for rent, security deposit, utilities, furniture, and renters insurance.
  • How far is the school from your home? You may need to budget for travel expenses and summer storage fees.
  • What does it cost to have a car on-campus?
  • Do you receive college credit for study abroad programs?
  • What extracurricular activities interest your student? Greek organizations and club sports teams can cost thousands of extra dollars each year.
  • What is the process to get student tickets to football or basketball games and what do they cost?
  • What are some of the other small fees you can expect? Many schools charge an orientation fee, a matriculation fee, and a commencement/graduation fee.
  • And last but not least… expect a 3% fee for paying the other fees with your credit card.

Once your child has narrowed down their list of potential colleges, find someone who has a student there and ask about the hidden extras. You may be surprised to find that the private school (with a slightly higher four-year graduation rate at 66%) and a comprehensive fee compares more favorably than you expected to a large, public university.

Nancy Blackman, CFP®
Senior Portfolio Manager

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