Like many parents across the country, Mike Mueller spent the summer helping his son, Jakob, prepare for his freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis.
Of course, that also meant, for Mueller, studying the family’s finances and watching for any unexpected college fees and expenses that could catch Mueller off guard.
While Jakob received a need-based scholarship and some financial aid, Mueller says sticker shock hit him at times. For example: $250 for a text book.
Books are covered by Jakob’s scholarship, but of course, Mueller said, “not every student has that kind of financial help.”
As Jakob heads to college, Mueller knows there will still be unforeseen costs attached to his son’s education even with help from the school.
“I did anticipate most of the costs,” Mueller said. “The school was pretty thorough in telling me what to expect. When I got the bill there’s wasn’t anything on there I hadn’t been told about. However, it doesn’t mean I’ve been fully prepared to pay them.”
Sure, there’s tuition, housing, and meal costs, but many other hidden, and often surprising, expenses loom for parents and students.
You may have already seen a college bill with a buffet of fees.
You may have considered lab fees if your student is majoring in science or technology, but sometimes even those fees throw parents for a loop.
Often, students may owe an engineering fee although they may be majoring in computer science.
Other fees can surprisingly crop up in the most unlikely places from health insurance to transportation.
“The school automatically adds a school health insurance policy premium (about $2,000 a year) to your bill unless you can prove that your child has adequate coverage under a parent’s policy,” Mueller said.
At many colleges, there also are fees for orientation, technology, mentoring, capital improvements, documents, parking, environmental, recreation, printing, sports, and online classes.
There are even “welcome” fees and a cleaning fee if your child gets sick and vomits on the dorm’s carpets. Ouch!
Some colleges may waive fees, or students can choose against them. “Sports passes” like the ones at Boston University are added a college bill but students have the choice to opt.
But more times than not, fees are mandatory and may not be covered by scholarships. Students will have to pay out-of-pocket or take out loans to cover them.
University fees can quickly accumulate and often exceed $2,000 a year.
And these may increase yearly as institutions, especially public ones, can more easily raise fees rather than tuition, which has more approval layers and requirements.
From 2000 to 2017, fees at public universities increased by more than 100 percent, while tuition increased by 80 percent.
So What Exactly Does Tuition Cover?
Tuition is essentially a fee, too, and the bulk of college’s costs. It is a fee for taking each course and is often calculated per unit.
Some institutions are now offering a flat tuition rate, which covers a minimum and a maximum number of units per semester.
Within tuition, other fees, such as the ones listed above, also will be added o tuition.
Room and board also is its own cost at most colleges. (A “comprehensive” package that includes tuition, fees, and room and board is offered at some colleges but not most.)
Students pick a dorm-room option and meal plans. Inevitably, students won’t want to eat every meal on campus so prepare for groceries and extra dollars for eating out.
Sometimes, students even run out of meals on their plans.
Books and supplies can escalate quickly into thousands of dollars, and students need electronics like computers, cell phones, and chargers – more added expense.
If your student owns a car, don’t forget to factor in monthly gas prices and parking permits.
Some parents list many other expenses that they cover yearly including parking tickets, Uber, postage, and even storage spaces when school is out for summer.
Extracurricular social activities – like Greek life, theater, and music – also hit the bank account as does travel aboard.
“Higher education costs, especially at private universities, are approaching a level at which the average American will no longer be able to afford,” Mueller said.
College Life Isn’t Cheap
Julie Johnston Sauls was stunned when she received the list of dorm supplies her son would need as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s like furnishing a mini apartment and then some,” Sauls said.
The list required organizational bins, a trash can, a drying rack for laundry, even a can opener.
Her son, Kyle, qualified for a need-based scholarship, and he received a coverage for health insurance. Still, the dorm supplies cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket for Sauls.
Sauls has rented an SUV to take her son, and all of his belongings, more than 1,500 miles – one way – to college.
She and her mother will spend six nights in a hotel and have to buy gas and food on the trip. That’s thousands of dollars invested before Kyle takes one college course.
Because of the distance and expense, Kyle won’t travel home for fall break or Thanksgiving. The risk is too high and costly.
When Kyle visited the college campus this summer, some of his flights were cancelled and delayed without warning. That meant extra money for additional flights and an extra 48 hours of traveling and waiting in airports.
“That was just from Memphis to Philadelphia and for a non-holiday summer weekday trip,” Sauls said. “There’s no way he could make it there and back over a short five-day major holiday break. I don’t want my son stranded in an airport for Thanksgiving or missing a class right before midterms. I wish we could have him for every holiday the dorm is close. It breaks my heart but we just can’t afford it.”
Sauls is far from the only parent seeing college dollar signs this fall.
A word of advice… Prepare as best you can for unexpected costs even if that means passing occasionally on an expensive cup of coffee and banking the money – just in case your student calls home with a slew of unpaid parking tickets.
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Suzi Parker is an award-winning political and cultural journalist and author whose works has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, The Washington Post, Town & Country, US News & World Report ,and many other national and international publications.