The acceptance letters and financial aid offers that will soon (hopefully) be lying before you on your kitchen table will send the signal to choose the perfect school for your prospective college student. From a logical point of view, this should be an open-and-shut case—merely selecting the school which gives your family more “bang for your buck.” Financially, however, there is often more than what meets the eye.
While schools do a great job of mapping out the basic expenses of tuition, room and board, fees, and books there are a variety of costs that families aren’t necessarily aware of until they encounter them. These hidden fees not only come as a surprise, but can also be quite extensive.
From printing fees to Greek life, we’ve laid out the top ten significant college cost “surprises” to help you and your child avoid first-year sticker shock and ultimately create (and stick to) a realistic and reasonable budget.
College Expenses and Fees
Some colleges charge “comprehensive fees” — the total for tuition, fees, and room and board combined; the majority do not. Depending on the college and academic program, there may be various add-ons: lab fees for science courses, equipment charges for technology classes, art supply fees for art classes, higher costs for thicker textbooks.
Schools may even make you pay to use their printers, which can be as steep as $1 a page. Want to save money and save the earth? Discover whether assignments can be electronically submitted.
College Meal Plans
One of our primary concerns as a parent is whether our child will eat enough. Colleges offer a variety of meal plans to meet students’ needs (and assuage our concerns)—ranging from one meal a day to unlimited meal plans. The national average cost of an unlimited meal plan is $1600 a semester.
However, just because you can have something, doesn’t mean you should—especially if your child is not a big eater. Be sure to explore the options and be realistic. If your child isn’t a defensive lineman on the football team and rather, eats like a bird, don’t feel guilty about choosing the plan that caters to your child’s personal eating habits and goes a little easier on your checkbook.
There are countless reasons why your college student needs health insurance and increasingly, colleges are deeming it mandatory. If your child is already covered under your insurance plan, you’ll simply submit a waiver and go no farther. As long as the Affordable Care Act stands, students are able to stay on their parents’ health plans until they are 26.
If your child is not covered under your plan, however—don’t stress. Colleges often offer affordable student health plans that provide basic insurance coverage. They also have a major advantage over other health insurance options because the premium costs can often be covered with student loans.
If neither of the above options is viable for you, that’s okay too. Enroll in a Marketplace health insurance plan that covers essential health benefits and more. When you apply for coverage through the Marketplace, you’ll find out if you qualify for Medicaid or CHIP. If you qualify, your child’s coverage can begin immediately, any time of year.
For many students, “going Greek” offers endless social and philanthropic opportunities. But like everything else in life, nothing is for free. With new-member fees, chapter dues, and social expenses, Greek life can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars the first year.
In subsequent years, active members generally pay more, particularly if they are required to dorm in the chapter house. Additionally, there are extra costs that sorority women incur, including formal wear, rush outfits, Greek letter gear, and gifts for younger sisters.
On the bright side of things, there is definitely something to be said for the non-financial returns that Greek students enjoy after graduation, including networking connections and the benefit of having developed social etiquette, as well as leadership skills.
If your child is set on joining a fraternity or sorority, get the lowdown on the particulars of Greek life at your child’s campus to flesh out a realistic budget. Inquire about scholarships and payment programs that are often available for active members.
You can’t go anywhere on a college campus without seeing students decked out from head to toe in spirit apparel. Step into a dorm, and you’re apt to be bombarded by the sight of shower curtains, throw pillows, pennants, and trash cans adorned with the school logo, mascot, and colors.
It’s easy for students to get carried away with it all, and hey who can blame them? Depending on just how carried away your college student gets, you can see several hundred, even thousands of dollars added to your semester bill.
Sporting and Entertainment Events
Attending and cheering on the school’s football and basketball teams is an integral and exciting part of the college experience—especially if your sports teams are high profile. Although some schools, like Cinderella-story Loyola University Chicago, offer students free admission to their sporting events, other schools charge steep prices for season passes and post-season packages which can cost several hundred dollars.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of free, or pretty close to free, events on college campuses. From book launches, political talks and rallies, to student plays and concerts, there are so many events to enjoy without having to break the piggy bank.
Is your Florida beach worshiper headed to the East Coast for college? If so, he or she will have to learn how to “layer.” Ditching the flip flops for Sorel boots, and trading in the bikini for a Canadian Goose parka, quickly adds up to an amount that might just break the bank.
Home for the Holidays
Be it Thanksgiving or Winter Break, your student most likely will be coming home at least twice during the school year. If he/she is traveling by air, the expenses undoubtedly can get hefty. To save on costs, buy early and keep an eye out for specials.
If road-tripping home, have your student check ride boards to save on gas and tolls and to avoid traveling alone.
By the same token, take into consideration how many times you will be visiting your child on campus. Be sure to estimate cost of travel and hotel expenses.
While you are at it, book your hotel for graduation a few years out. The farther out you reserve, the more likely you are to get a good deal (and a hotel closer to campus).
Yes, your student hasn’t moved in yet, much less selected a school, but it’s never too early to take into account what you will do with your kid’s stuff at the end of freshman year.
If there’s just too much to haul or the distance is just too far, getting a summer storage unit just might be the answer. Many storage facilities offer deep discounts for students—look for $1 for first month rental and supply kit specials (boxes, tape, and labels).
This is often a more viable solution than renting a U-Haul and paying for fuel.
As with so much in the college admissions process, you need to do research to make sure you’re covering all the extra costs at your child’s school. If you do so, you can avoid the first-year sticker shock of hidden college costs with careful and realistic budgeting.
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