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Understanding the Hidden Costs of College

When considering planning for higher education, you might be surprised  to discover that college tuition and fees are not necessarily the only associated costs. As students begin this next phase of life, taking a look at the college’s published cost of attendance is a good idea. These are estimated costs (usually produced in conjunction with the University) that change depending on the student’s chosen major, classroom curriculum, campus activity, and personal lifestyle.   Don't forget the expense of outfitting a dorm room or apartment. 

A recent survey on the current college trends reported hidden costs beyond tuition could easily exceed more than $3,000 to $5,000 a year per student. Unplanned or unexpected costs directly related to education include:

  • Admission tests and applications
  • Classroom materials and textbooks
  • Dropping classes or registering late
  • Extra classes or specific major study sessions
  • Lab and tutoring sessions
  • Per-use charges for campus amenities
  • Post-undergraduate or licensing exams
  • Sorority and club membership fees

Today, over 60% of U.S. undergraduates attend four-year universities, with less than 40% attending community colleges. Tuition and fees account for 40% of four-year college costs for in-state students living on campus. That leaves 60% of an estimated budget to cover the cost of college life and study regimes.

In some cases, undergraduates apply for grant aid to cover the non-tuition expenses. Unfortunately, grants might only cover a small portion, leaving the student responsible for the reminder. Individual lifestyle expenses each month can cost $50 to $200, or in some cases much more. The majority of these non-tuition personal living expenses associated with attending college could be overwhelming to an underestimated budget. In order to make ends meet, some students may find it necessary to get a part-time job.

Student Daily Living

  • Cable/satellite TV/cell phone
  • Replacing damaged or lost property
  • Healthcare  
  • Housing and dorm furnishings
  • Laundry 
  • Meals outside of the meal plan
  • Parking and transportation
  • Renter’s insurance 

As students head off to college, it's a good time for parents and students to review  their budgeted living expenses. It is highly recommended for both the student and parent to be involved in the planning process. These conversations are valuable lessons and offer students an opportunity to manage their own spending budget as they prepare for the future.


Whether the student attends a large university or small college, they will still face the challenge of planning for non-tuition expenses. The choice of attending a large university offering a wider range of degrees, more clubs, greater resources, and access to alumni, compared to a small college with more personalized attention for each student, can ultimately come down to these extra costs. Be sure to think through them carefully before making such an important life decision.