Pay for School

Understanding the Real Cost of College

When evaluating college costs, the first numbers people usually turn to are tuition, room, and board. While the tuition figures listed in most financial aid guides are fairly accurate, the average room and board figures can sometimes be off. Also, there are many expenses that aren't always discussed, but you need to consider.

The Direct Costs of College
Direct costs are those expenses that generally are paid to the college and are specifically education-related.

College Tuition
Tuition is fairly simple to understand; it's the amount the college requires to attend class. At some colleges, there's a flat tuition amount regardless of how many credit hours are taken. At others, the amount depends on the number of credit hours. The first thing you'll want to do when adding up the total cost is put down the exact tuition amount. If the school bases the amount on number of credit hours, assume 15 hours per term.

College Administrative Fees
There are some fees required of all students and some that may have to be paid simply because of the major your child chooses. For example, science majors may have to pay a refundable lab breakage deposit of $50 to $100 per lab course. Assume that you'll get none of this amount refunded, since even the most careful student breaks a beaker occasionally. Some colleges may also have an optional student services fee, depending upon whether you choose to participate in certain activities.

Books and Supplies
Here again, this figure will vary according to the major. For example, science books can be extraordinarily expensive ($75 or more for some), and there could be ten or more books required for one English literature course. In addition, there may be lab workbooks, photocopied articles, and study guides that don't always get figured in. While the financial aid office usually provides an average annual amount, this figure is apt to be low. Estimate between $500 and $700 per year.

Room and Board Costs at College
This expense is dependent on whether you live in a dorm, off-campus apartment, group house, relative's home, etc. The dorm costs may also vary depending on whether the room is a single, double, triple, or quad bedroom. You won't know the actual amount until after you've been assigned a spot. For calculating purposes, use the average figure the college provides. Unfortunately, many colleges lump room and board charges together, which can be misleading, but the cost of dorm rooms or rent usually can be calculated accurately. The range is typically between $3,000 and $4,500 a year.

If you live on campus, you may have options as to meal plans. Some schools require that all meals be eaten in the school dining center. Others offer variable meal plans, where you sign up for any number of meals per week. What's best? You may not need three meals a day, seven days a week. So if you can, choose the plan that meets your needs. Remember, the school's estimated board cost will include only meal plans, not snacks, socializing, or splurges.

The College Costs You Don't Think About
Transportation and Travel
This expense includes both the cost of commuting back and forth from the local residence to classes and the cost of getting to and from home during vacations and breaks. For a student living on campus, the transportation or commuting amount is probably zero, unless you have a car. If a car is involved, there are parking fees, insurance payments, and gas, oil, and maintenance costs.
The other transportation amount, referred to here as "travel," has to do with going between your home and the college. Every family will have a different amount, depending on whether the college is clear across the country or next door, whether you come home once, twice, or a dozen times, and whether the distance can be driven or not. We can't provide you with averages, but we will say that there are ways to make this figure lower, such as student discounts, public transportation, and ride-shares.
If you live on campus, you may have options as to meal plans. Some schools require that all meals be eaten in the school dining center. Others offer variable meal plans, where you sign up for any number of meals per week. What's best? You may not need three meals a day, seven days a week. So if you can, choose the plan that meets your needs. Remember, the school's estimated board cost will include only meal plans, not snacks, socializing, or splurges.

Personal Expenses
These expenses include incidental expenditures such as laundry and entertainment.

Health Coverage
You will probably be able to remain on your parents' health insurance plan while a student, even when living away from home. So, your family can assume health expenses will be similar to those of recent years. Don't discount a few extra expenses, though.

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