What's the Price Tag for a College Education? - COLLEGEdata - Pay Your Way

What's the Price Tag for a College Education?

Tuition is only one part of the cost of going to college. Other expenses range from meals to housing to bus passes. Learn how all these expenses add up to a college's "sticker price."

In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a "moderate" college budget for an in-state public college for the 2013–2014 academic year averaged $22,826. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $44,750. But what makes up these charges? Of course, financial aid might help cover some costs, but it is good to know how they add up to a total "cost of attendance" figure provided by the college.

What Goes into the Cost of College?

First of all, there is tuition, the money you pay a college for academic instruction. Then there are "fees," charges for specific services such as Internet access. Many colleges list "tuition and fees" as one amount without breaking it down. And lastly, there are all the other expenses associated with going to college: housing, meals, books, school supplies, and "miscellaneous." If you are wondering what's behind these costs, read on.

Tuition

Tuition is what colleges charge for the instruction they provide. Colleges charge tuition by the units that make up an academic year, such as a semester or quarter. An academic year typically runs from fall through spring.

Tuition at public colleges is often a bargain for state residents, but not for out-of-staters, who often pay double the tuition of residents. (Other costs, such as student fees and room and board, are usually the same for residents and nonresidents.)

Tuition at some colleges can vary by major. Students in the sciences, engineering, computing, premed programs, and the fine arts often pay more. For example, at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, students enrolled in the science and engineering programs paid $4,920 more in tuition for the 2013–2014 academic year. This is called "variable tuition" and it is worth checking into if you have a major in mind.

Fees

Student fees run the gamut from library access and parking to student government and registration. Colleges usually provide a student fee total, breaking out only the most significant fees.

What else can be included? Typical items are ID cards, membership in the student union, health insurance, athletic facility usage, diplomas and graduation expenses, laboratory supplies, studio usage, computer access, local bus service, and student activities. At some colleges, first-year students must pay a one-time fee to cover orientation and administrative costs. If you want to know more about student fees, contact the registrar's office, cashier, financial aid office, or admissions office.

Tuition and Fees Combined

The cost for one year of tuition and fees varies widely among colleges. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013–2014 school year was $30,094 at private colleges, $8,893 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,203 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

Housing and Meals

The cost of room and board depends on the housing and food plans you choose. On-campus housing can come in various sizes and shapes, including dorm- or apartment-style housing and meal plans. The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2013–2014 ranged from $9,500 at four-year public schools to $10,830 at private schools. Housing and meal options are usually available separately, so that you may live off campus but choose to have your meals on campus. Colleges usually provide room and board estimates for living off campus based on typical student costs. Of course, students living at home typically save big time on room and board costs.

Books and School Supplies

Most colleges estimate and publish the average costs for books and supplies at their institution. In addition to textbooks, typical school supplies include printed class materials, extra required reading materials (such as classic novels for an English class), reference books, and the usual office supplies (such as pens, pencils, file folders, and notebooks). Some colleges include the cost of a computer and computer accessories. Some colleges don't include these costs at all. The College Board reports the average cost for books and supplies for the 2013–2014 school year was $1,207 at public colleges and $1,253 at private colleges.

Personal and Transportation Expenses

Then there are the expenses that colleges may estimate but don't bill you for: local transportation, clothing, personal items, entertainment, etc. Words that often pop up to describe these expenses are "estimated," "miscellaneous," "personal," and the catchall "other." These can add up. The College Board reports that expenses in this category for 2013–2014 ran from $2,580 at private colleges to $3,228 at public universities.

Don't Let College Costs Scare You

These costs may seem overwhelming, but there are ways to keep expenses down. Remember that college educations come at all levels of cost, and that financial aid can reduce that cost. If a school is a great fit for you but seems too expensive, it makes sense to apply and then see whether your financial aid offer will bring the cost down. Don't give up on a college because of its sticker price.

To see how actual students factored cost into their college planning and decisions, visit CollegeData's Student Profiles.

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