Overlooked College Costs
Updated: Mar 11
College is expensive. And it’s hard to know exactly how much it will cost your student. College costs typically rise each year; FinAid says tuition usually increases about twice the rate of inflation. Collegeboard found that in-state tuition and fees at public 4-year colleges were $10,440 for 2019-2020. This amount is before room, board, books, and personal expenses. These personal expenses fall into all sorts of categories, and they can add up quickly. Below are 7 overlooked college costs that students and families encounter.
You may be thinking that you already paid for food. If your student lives on campus, he/she probably has a meal plan costing thousands of dollars a semester. However, they will not eat every meal in the dining hall. Some dining halls have limited availability late at night or on the weekends, and the temptation to order Postmates during a study session will win out. With mobile ordering and Venmo, it would be easy for your student to rack up a lot of expenses on food. Set expectations and a budget. Let them know what you will and will not cover and enforce consequences if they overspend.
While some students want their room to look like a Pottery Barn catalog, and there are even interior design companies that specialize in dorm rooms, you are going to have to buy a few things for your room. Residence halls typically have Twin XL beds, so most likely, the bedding your student has now won’t fit. Your student will most likely need a few things for a desk, the bathroom, and laundry. Some things, like a futon, fridge, or microwave, may be provided or available for rent. Check out to see what is already included, and check with your roommate/suitemate to divide and conquer the list. Your student’s room doesn’t need 4 coffee makers.
Many parents insist that their student needs to have a car on campus. I’ve had parents rule out schools because their son wouldn’t be able to have a car during his first year. Some schools allow students to have cars on campus with no additional fee, but many schools make bank on their parking fees. For example, at Georgia Tech, students must pay $795 a year for the privilege of having their car. Students are assigned a specific lot, and any violation results in a fine ranging from $10-$500, depending on the offense. You also need to factor in expenses like insurance, gas, and maintenance. To limit this expense, check out the campus transportation site to see if there are any buses/shuttles to off-campus locations, like the grocery store. Some colleges have a partnership with city buses, and students can get around town for free with their ID cards. Set expectations before your student leaves home regarding coming home for weekends and breaks and see which option(s) work best for your student.
Even if you plan to keep your student on your HULU or Netflix, there may be some things they want to experience that cost money. Not every school includes sporting events in their fees, like football or basketball games, and if your student wants to attend an away game, they would need to buy a ticket, pay for food, transportation, and lodging (if they don’t know someone at the other school). Your student may also have costs associated with clubs or on-campus events.
Speaking of clubs, many students I know hope to be in a fraternity or sorority during their time in college. While Greek Life has its benefits, it often comes with a hefty price, especially at large southern institutions. For example, the University of Alabama publishes new member fees as high as $4700 for one semester for Panhellenic and $3800 a semester for Interfraternity Council. This is in addition to any special events, programming, and clothing that may be required. Some students must have meal plans through the fraternity/sorority, in addition to the meal plan your student must have as a Freshmen at the school. Living in the house can be cheaper at some institutions, but it’s important to budget accordingly if your student hopes to participate.
If your student is going to college in a different part of the country (or the world), they may not have adequate gear to handle the elements. Every year, I have students looking at schools in the Northeast or the Midwest, and their “winter” coats from Georgia won’t cut it. These students are used to wearing shorts 75% of the year, and their boots are more of a fashion statement than protection from the snow. Take advantage of end-of-season sales and stock up on gear the summer before you move in. Additionally, your student may also need business casual clothes for a job or internship.
Not Graduating in 4 Years
This may surprise you, but most students do not graduate college in 4 years. Colleges report their 6-year graduation rate, and these are often the ones published since they are higher than the 4-year. Many college scholarships only cover 4 years (or 8 semesters); HOPE/Zell Miller is good for 127 attempted hours (not completed). This means the 5th (or 6th) year(s) come at a high price. Not only will your student have to pay tuition during that time, but they will also miss out on earnings and retirement contributions. Students need to be diligent in their academic planning to make sure they are taking the appropriate courses for their degree and consider 4-year graduation rates when researching schools. Ask the college what initiatives they are doing to ensure students graduate, and graduate on time.
There are a lot of other costs to consider when attending college. Ask a lot of questions to discover what you are actually paying for. See if there are cheaper options (like for books or housing), or if it’s possible to waive some fees, like health insurance, if your student has coverage elsewhere. Be sure to avoid these overlooked college costs!