Budgeting for college isn’t just a hot topic, it can also be a can of worms. It’s slippery, filled with surprises, and somewhat disturbing.
Most families are prepared for the basics of tuition, room, board, books and “fees”. In fact, this basic list is what college websites use to publish their Cost of Attendance. Understandably, many prospective families are so shocked by this number that they don’t want to open that proverbial can of worms to see what else might be lurking. As a college consultant and parent of college students, I must prepare you to expect more expenses. I hate worms, but I’ll reach in and show you what to expect.
The first area where unexpected expenses creep up is in the fine print of “additional fees” listed in the Cost of Attendance. These tend to vary by major, class, and personal circumstance. For instance, required books might be zero one semester and several hundred dollars the next. Many professors post excerpts of readings, so no books are required. However, in some majors–nursing for instance–hefty reference books are required and even the digital versions can run $1-2,000. Lab materials, art supplies, specialized computers, etc. are another variable expense required by some courses.
Some schools’ tuition is flat, while other universities charge by the credit hour or courses selected. So based on how many courses or how many credit hours are taken each quarter or semester, tuition can vary. Quick tip: be sure to read the fine print about deadlines for dropping courses if your school charges by the hour or course.
Additionally, health insurance requirements vary by school and by personal circumstance. Most schools require proof of health insurance, many offer students university-wide insurance or even tiers of plans. Depending on your family’s insurance (or perhaps even an athlete who might require additional insurance), you may need to purchase additional insurance that will cross state lines. Finally, almost every bill issued per semester will include “additional fees” that cover things like recreation or environmental health. Typically university websites aren’t very helpful in estimating these costs, but one good one to reference as an example is the University of Colorado.
Under Cost of Attendance, travel might be listed. However, this line item does not account for bus, train or airfare. To budget for travel expenses, don’t forget to include the following:
- Air travel to/from the beginning/end of each term and breaks (some schools have Fall, Winter, Spring/Easter breaks so be sure to check the academic calendar).
- Transportation costs to/from the airport–taxi/uber/lyft or train fares add up quickly
- Cost of parking on campus–this can be steep!
- Cost of gas if your student drives to and from home daily or at the beginning/end of terms
- Extracurricular travel for students taking weekend trips into a city from campus, etc.
As we all know, airfare tends to be expensive around the holidays, and yet it’s difficult to book those tickets well in advance because students’ finals schedules aren’t always accurate or published far in advance. Having had to change many tickets, I now recommend booking changeable fares.
International and bi-coastal students face extra challenges when budgeting for travel. For students living in dorms, it’s essential to check with the Office of Residential Life to plan for when dorms will be closed. It’s possible to get an exemption or be placed in a different dorm for a holiday if your student cannot leave campus. Quick tip: be especially careful if your student has to catch a flight the day after finals end because dorms usually close on the last day of finals. You may need to budget for a night in a hotel, which in itself can also be difficult for teenagers.
Most first-year students living on campus can predict their room costs once their dorms are assigned (these fees vary but are published on the schools’ websites). However, don’t forget about the “set-up” costs of dorm living. You might have a “streamlined student” who only needs bedding, towels, school supplies, and a 10–pack of plastic hangers. Or you may have a child who’s been designing their dream dorm room since middle school. (Have you read about the parents who actually move out the dorm furniture and move in coordinated furnishings? If not, be careful of the #dreamdorm rabbit holes you can go down on instagram!) Generally, families can get away with a key list of items, just don’t expect them to be reused the following year.
Quick tip: don’t forget to load your student’s campus card to pay for dorm washer/dryers and printing on campus.
One thing most parents of out-of-state students don’t budget for is the travel costs at the beginning/end of the year. Will you fly out to help your student move in/out? Will you have your student ship dorm items home? Will you store their items over the summer? Keep in mind these costs for first-years and beyond:
- Parent travel/hotel, rental car and parking
- Driving gas/tolls/parking
- Shipping fees
- Storage fees
Once out of the dorm, a whole host of other expenses begin to creep in, including but not limited to:
- Apartment application fee
- Apartment damage deposit fee
- Apartment rent (usually a 12-month lease)
- Apartment utilities (water, utilities, wifi)
- Renter’s insurance
- Sublease fee to re-write lease if your student goes abroad or moves mid-year
- Optional parking
- Optional pet fee
- Housewares (pots/pans/dishes/etc.)
- Small appliances like toasters or microwaves
- Cleaning products
- Furniture if the apartment is unfurnished
- Movers, if necessary
- Storage of furniture after the lease end and before the new lease begins
One kicker many parents don’t realize until they face the situation is the length of leases. A typical apartment leases for “12 months”. I put this in quotes because the lease is often actually 11 or 11.5 months. For students who continue on campus for summer internships or classes, this can leave a gap. And for students who leave campus for the summer, they are stuck with paying rent the entire year. On most campuses where rental housing is in demand, there is a gap between leases so that landlords can clean and repair. What this means is that furniture and housewares all need to be moved home or stored unless your lease is renewed. This is a major pain and can be expensive.
A final note on living expenses: do your research. Apartment living on/near many campuses can be quite expensive. Quick tip: engage on parent chat boards and ask parents of older students for wisdom ahead of time. And a great way to get cheap furniture is to buy it from graduating seniors–it just requires you to be there at that time and have a place to put it.
Studying and Working Off Campus or Abroad
Study abroad programs are an amazing opportunity for college students to learn and grow. For the most part, schools attempt to make the cost of studying and living abroad on par with their current school’s tuition/room/board. However, travel expenses–both getting to the program and all the additional exploratory travel during the term–are additional and expensive!
Similarly, if your student participates in an out of town internship or a coop, be sure to factor in the additional living and travel expenses.
Living on or near a campus is a lot like living in an airport–everything costs about 50% more than it should. Even if your student has a meal plan, they will not eat every meal in a cafeteria; you’ll need to budget for off-campus pizza, brunch, snacks, etc. If your student doesn’t have a meal plan, take the time to create a realistic budget that includes weekly groceries, toiletries, cleaning supplies, eating out, etc. While you may be adept at buying in bulk at Costco, or freezing meals for later, your student won’t be able to do this very easily. Apartment fridges tend to be small (and shared by many), storage is limited, and access to affordable groceries in smaller sizes just doesn’t exist in most college towns. Adapting to cooking for one is difficult and frustrating. Know that your student will sometimes just need to buy dinner because they ran out of time, food, or energy. This isn’t all bad news, though, after fending for themselves for a semester, you’ll be amazed at how much your student matures and how thankful they are when they come home to your TLC.
Other everyday expenses that are unpredictable yet inevitable happen when your student gets sick (be prepared about three weeks into the semester and every month thereafter.) Resourceful parents will pack a veritable medicine chest for their student and will also remember to pack instructions–“take this for these symptoms” and “don’t overlap these meds”–because trips to the on-campus drug or convenience store will be frustrating and expensive. Similarly, prepare for co-pays at University Health Services or Urgent Care. Things just happen in the petri-dish of a college campus. This year’s medication shortages have taxed parents’ and students’ wallets and patience. Families have had to fill hard-go-get medications at out-of-network pharmacies and rely on FedEx to send to students.
Finally, don’t forget that college isn’t just about studying. Your student should be encouraged to engage in every aspect of university life. They only get to attend college once. Never again will it be so easy to attend an on campus Ted Talk in the morning, an acapella concert in the evening and cheer their team on for the weekend. Sadly, not all of these activities are covered in the “additional fees” line item. Yet these, I would argue, are essential for the college experience. Greek life can also be a fantastic way to engage socially and philanthropically, but it does come with significant annual fees (and many must-have sweatshirts!) Club sports or intramurals are equally enriching, but do come with nominal fees or possibly even significant fees if the team travels.
With my consulting families, I routinely quote the work of Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. In it, he proves out that the best indicator of a successful college experience is one where the student is highly engaged. The more they put in, the more they get out. Fun and enrichment might seem like icing on the cake, and it is, yet, would cake be worth it without the icing?