11 Ways to Flush Out Hidden College Expenses

Affording College, Planning & Saving
on March 25, 2014

11 Ways to Flush Out Hidden College Expenses


For many high school juniors and seniors, the warmer seasons indicate prime time for adventuring to potential colleges. The college visit can be a highly scripted experience as the universities hit the high points, show off the latest technology, meander in and out of opulent buildings—and typically reference a nice, round figure for the bottom line.

The College Board estimates that the average cost of college tuition for the 2013-2014 academic year is $30,094 for private universities, $22,203 for out-of-state residents at public universities, and $8,893 for in-state residents. But under-the-radar expenses loom large and can vary drastically from campus to campus. On your next college visit, keep your eyes open to possible hidden expenses—and arm yourself now with this set of questions to protect against sticker shock later.

What is actually included under the umbrella of tuition?
Many universities reference the flat rate for simply attending class for the semester but fail to mention the “student fees” that are tacked on the itemized bill. For instance, does your student have automatic access to the campus recreation and fitness facilities, or is there a fee for that?

How many holidays and breaks are on the school calendar?
Your prodigal student will wander home more often than you think. If your student wants to come home for roughly every long weekend and every major break, tabulate what the airfare or gas costs.

Is the study abroad program in-house or contracted to an outside organization?
The study abroad experience is highly touted as a way to grow consciousness of the global community and expand students’ horizons. If your student is interested, you’ll need to consider costs ahead of time. If the institution has an in-house study abroad program, expect for a semester abroad to cost the same as regular tuition. However, outside companies have a higher mark-up.

What is the median cost of Greek life?
Although each chapter answers to its own national headquarters, your institution should have a figure regarding the average cost of belonging to a Greek organization on that campus. Luckily, more chapters are adopting “no assessing” policies, which means semester dues cover all expenses.

Can we see a course syllabus?
If at all possible, shoot for getting your hands on a course syllabus within your child’s projected major. Peruse the list of materials required for the class. Is it a laundry list of textbooks? Are several of the textbooks written by the professor who teaches the class? Beware of professors peddling their own publications, as they are often printed by a small, university press and are more expensive.

What is the school’s track record for accepting AP scores?
Check with the registrar to verify whether scores lower than 5 are accepted for course credit. This is crucial to assessing the big picture cost, because thousands of dollars can be saved in the long term with credits earned in advance.

What is the registrar policy on transferring in courses from community college?
Many students save money by taking 100 or 200 level courses over the summer at community colleges and transferring them for credit. Maymester and other programs typically have a hefty markup, so community college is a more affordable option for summer school—if the credits transfer.

How accessible is parking, and how much will it cost?
Anticipate purchasing a parking pass and registering your student’s vehicle, but also take time to consider the nature of the campus. Urban campuses particularly struggle with providing enough consistent parking and often encourage students to purchase memberships to a garage or pay lot.

What are the meal plan requirements?
Meal plan options can be a maze of unlimited dining and “bonus bucks.” Verify the minimum meal plan your student would be required to have, and then assess how often your student will actually frequent the dining hall. Consider off-campus dining and after hours dining in that equation. If your student will be required to opt for a meal plan he/she is unlikely to use, that could be a red flag.

What kind of laundry facilities are available?
Particularly if your student is in a traditional dorm for the first year, anticipate coin or card operated laundry facilities. Inquire about the average cost associated with student laundry. The university might try to sell you on weekly laundry and folding services, but consider whether this is actually a necessary expense for your child.

What equipment and supplies will be furnished by the school?
Most schools furnish dorms fairly generously with necessary furniture, leaving out only creature comforts to be provided by students and their families—but pose the question, just in case. Beyond dorm living, consider pricey school-year staples like computers and printers. Will your student need these, or will the school provide easy access on campus?

When it comes to college expenses, the devil is in the details. When in doubt—ask.

Interested in more ways to cover college costs? Check out these related articles…
Filing the FAFSA: What Parents Need to Know, Beginner’s Guide to Financial Aid, Tax Implications of Student Loan Debt, Confessions of a Scholarship Winner

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