Figuring out the cost of college is often tricky. While college tuition and room and board make up the majority of the costs, there are usually other expenses that are not advertised in the sticker price—and these expenses add up. There are numerous factors to consider, but once you know what to look for—and know what will be added to your itemized bill—you can make a plan to pay.
What goes into the cost of college in the US?
Choosing a private or public college has a major impact on the cost of tuition. Public colleges primarily receive their funding from their state government, while private colleges are funded by tuition and fees, as well as their endowments, or donations from alumni and other supporters. This means tuition can vary significantly between the colleges you are considering for your studies in the US.
Particular majors may also have a different cost from other majors at the same institution. While some colleges set tuition prices across the board, others may charge certain majors more to cover costs of specialized equipment, higher salaries of professors in the field, or other expenses related to a particular field of study. Similarly, the cost of graduate programs can vary significantly based on the degree path you pursue.
For example, engineering classes require expensive equipment and even art classes require lots of supplies. Nursing programs require resource-intensive clinical experiences and computer science professors expect compensation equal to what they would receive in private sector jobs, as The Pew Charitable Trust notes.
But tuition is only one piece of the cost of college story.
Determine housing costs
Room and board is a separate line-item on college bills, but it is often as high—and occasionally higher—than tuition itself. It is an expense you need to account for, even if you plan to live off campus.
International students living on campus also need to consider campus closures, especially if you are not planning to head back home during school vacations. Some institutions will charge students extra to stay in on-campus housing when dormitories and residence halls are normally closed, such as over winter- and spring break, or during summer sessions.
If you plan to live off campus, you need to find out whether you can rent a furnished apartment. While most apartments for rent come with appliances, unfurnished apartments mean you will need to purchase items like a bed and mattress.
As an off-campus student, you will also need to account for expenses like utilities and renter’s insurance. Where you live can also significantly impact your transportation costs. Determine whether you can get to campus via public transit or if you will need a personal vehicle.
Graduate students in particular may find on-campus housing is more limited, or might not even be available. Check with your university or speak with a Shorelight advisor to see if graduate housing is offered.
Undergraduate and graduate students should compare on-campus costs with off-campus options, as living off campus may end up saving you money or the hassle (and cost) of having to fly home during school breaks. However, undergraduate students will want to confirm whether they are allowed to live off campus or whether their university or college only allows undergraduates to live off campus after a certain time period. (For example, some colleges require freshmen to live on campus.)
Budget for college fees
While some schools may advertise low tuition, those prices may not reflect mandatory university fees.
Fees vary between colleges, but you may find one-time fees pop up in specific years—for example for orientation, commencement, and getting copies of your transcript. Other fees are annual, so you will want to budget each year.
For example, transportation fees cover the costs of having shuttles that help students get from one area of campus to another. Campus or facility fees are more generic, helping universities and colleges offset the cost of maintenance and updates. Also common are technology fees, covering things like Wi-Fi, computer lab use, and other services.
Once you select a major, you may find there are fees specific to that course of study. For example, you may have a general lab fee for a biology major and practice room fees for a music major. Some fees may be charged annually, while others may be course-specific, meaning you will pay the fee when taking a particular course.
Graduate students may find that teaching or conducting research allows you to eliminate certain fees, but you will want to confirm whether or not you have that opportunity directly with your institution.
Other fees cover services like student activities and athletic centers. You still may find fees on your bill, even if you do not plan to use these services. (This is perhaps the best motivation for taking advantage of everything available while you are enrolled at your university or college!) You may also encounter fees specific to your chosen extracurricular activities. For example, Greek life may have annual dues, and other clubs and organizations may require dues from members.
Be aware that many institutions also charge fees for things like late-registration or course withdrawal, though you should have advance notice of the specific time periods when fees take effect.
Consider other college expenses
Beyond tuition, room and board, and fees, you will want to include other expenses in your budget, like textbooks and supplies. As with fees that come with certain majors, textbooks can also cost more for some majors. Graduate students will find similar variability in textbook costs based on their course of study.
Used textbooks can save you money, but some classes may require the most recent version to properly follow along with the coursework. Some majors may also find they need to invest in equipment for labs or special computer software.
Additionally, international students must factor in the costs of simply getting to the US, including required student visa fees ($160 application). This includes personal transportation costs (public transit and flights home), meals off campus, your cellphone bill, groceries, and more.
Many universities and colleges also require students—both undergraduate and graduate—to have health insurance. Institutions themselves often offer student health plans to keep you covered, with some automatically enrolling students in the plans, even if you have third-party coverage. Others will allow you to waive the plan if you opt to purchase other coverage. Check with your institution to understand the rules and what you may have to pay.
Look at scholarships as a “bonus”
Scholarships are as varied as the different universities and colleges in the US. Some universities only offer scholarships for first-year students. Some offer four-year scholarships, which often come with minimum GPA requirements to maintain the award. Essentially, it is a good idea to budget for your education as if you have not received scholarships. That way, you are prepared no matter what.
Additionally, some scholarships have restrictions on how they can be used. For example, if you were expecting to use a scholarship to cover personal expenses, you may find you can only use it to cover costs like books or tuition and only after you have already incurred the costs—kind of like receiving a refund.
There are scholarships available for graduate students, depending on your program. But similar to undergraduate scholarships, they may come with specific requirements and may only cover smaller costs like textbooks.
Sample itemized bill
Room and board
Orientation and commencement
Facility or campus
Health insurance (mandatory)
Copy of academic transcript
Convenience fee (to pay bills with a credit card versus check)
Computer and software programs
Note that not every institution will have all of these fees—and some may have additional fees. You may also find what one college calls a health services fee, another college calls a wellness fee.
Create a multi-year plan to pay for college
When it comes to the cost of college, you will want to look at your college expenses across four years for undergraduates and two to three years for graduate students. That way, you will have a better idea of the total cost of your education.
From 2019 to 2020, college tuition and fees increased an average of 2.3% for undergraduate programs at public four-year schools and 2.9% for undergraduate programs at private four-year schools. For graduate degrees, the range was 2.6% to 3.6%, with public schools seeing less of an increase.
So, while price increases can vary year over year and from school to school, it is safe to factor in at least a 3% price increase each year. You will also want to factor in that increase across other expenditures like room and board and supplies.
Armed with this knowledge, you can prepare for the true cost of college and minimize financial surprises. And you do not have to go it alone: tap into resources like university financial aid officers and Shorelight advisors to stay informed about college expenses.
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