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12 College Costs that Surprise New College Parents

College costs shock even the savviest parents. And no matter how much you’ve researched, you’ll likely get hit with something you didn’t anticipate. Typically, college websites list five expenses: tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation. But the college years bring other costs, too. Here are 12 common expenses that sneak up on families.

Common College Expenses

1. The annual increase.

The increase in tuition/room/board that takes effect sometime each spring or summer surprises families the most, says Vicki Beam, independent education consultant and founder of Michigan College Planning. Institutions provide estimated costs with financial aid letters, and the increase comes as an unwelcome surprise. Parents also don’t realize they can expect a hike every year. According to the College Board, public university fees have increased an average of 2.6 % and private non-profits 2.3 % per year over the last 10 years. But some schools increase their rates much more.

2. Room and board.

Surprisingly, some families forget to calculate this cost, sometimes because colleges don’t list it with tuition, Beam says. Comb the school’s website to learn about housing choices and meal plans. Some dorms are cheaper than others. Depending on locale, room and board costs can be mitigated when a student moves off campus in later years.

3. Health insurance.

At many institutions, you must prove your family health plan adequately covers your student while at school. If the school deems it inadequate, you might be required to purchase the school’s plan to the tune of $2,500 to $3,000 per year (beyond a health clinic fee). Check your school’s policies.

4. Mandatory fees.

These vary by institution and may be combined with tuition or listed separately. They could include a health clinic fee, a recreation center fee, activity fee, and technology fee. Mine the school website for information. Unfortunately, your student can’t opt out of these fees.

5. Program fees.

Some academic departments charge extra for things like art supplies, film equipment, science labs, engineering fees, or private music lessons. These can add up. Contact the department to ask.

6. Other miscellaneous fees.

These include parking fees (if you take a car to campus), club fees, laundry fees, and printing fees. Every school is different. Sometimes fees can be eliminated (leave the car at home). But laundry can’t be avoided (though they may try!)

7. Textbook access codes.

Many students save by renting their online textbooks, but some books require digital access codes that expire at the semester’s end and force students to purchase at retail price.

8. Greek life.

Joining a fraternity or sorority comes with extra fees—chapter fee, membership dues, social events, clothing, and more. Don’t underestimate the extra cost.

9. First-year and transfer orientation programs.

Some schools charge for orientation, and if it’s held during summer, that’s one more trip to cover. Find out what your student’s campus offers so you can plan ahead. If you’re lucky, orientation will be paired with move-in day.

10. Parents’ Weekend.

Hotels commonly jack up their rates for this weekend, Beam says. Colleges might also hold Moms’ Weekend, Dads’ Weekend, or other planned family events. Consider alternative weekends to visit—you’ll have a better chance of getting dinner reservations in town, too!

11. Summer storage.

Attending college far from home means storing dorm things over the summer. Plan for this cost by checking out local storage options and rates. Perhaps a friend who lives locally will allow your student to store a few items in their basement.

12. Dorm furnishings.

You don’t have to go nuts, but people do. However, remember that dorm rooms are small and parents are routinely surprised at what returns home unused. College isn’t Antarctica—start with the basics and buy as needed.

The College Board website suggests students talk to their school’s financial aid office for a more detailed picture of costs. Talking to other college parents is valuable too. Above all, discuss finances and expectations with your student, and make a plan for who will cover which cost, Beam says. Also, have your student keep an eye out for additional scholarships and campus jobs to help the bottom line. It never hurts to ask!

Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She writes frequently about parenting and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Family Fun, Parenting, and elsewhere. 

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