What does college really cost?
The cost of college has been dramatized and distorted in recent years by the media: odds are, you’ve heard a story recently about new increases in tuition, or that five more colleges passed the $50,000 mark. Most of the media’s attention focuses on a select amount of elite, highly expensive schools,which are not always where most college-bound students head. Not every school in the country now costs $50,000 or more to attend, but prices across the board are increasing. For parents, if you haven’t seen a tuition bill in awhile, you may be in for a bit of tuition shock.
That being said, you have to consider the benefits of higher education. The College Board reports that typical college graduates earn up to 60% more over the course of their lives compared to those with only a high school diploma. Apart from the financial benefits, there are personal benefits as well. Individuals with college educations are proven to be healthier, exercise more and smoke less. In addition, the College Board study found that society benefits more from a population with a postsecondary education; metropolitan areas with higher overall education levels have displayed higher voter turnouts, lower unemployment rates, and even a lift in wages of workers with lower education levels. The benefits are multifarious, and decidedly worth the large cost of college attendance.
- The average tuition for a four-year private school in 2009-10 was $26,273. The average in-state tuition for a four-year public school was $7,020, and the average out-of-state tuition for a four-year public school was $18,548.*
- The average surcharge for an on-campus room and meal plan at a four-year school in 2009-10 ranged from $8,193 to $9,363.*
- The average amount spent on books and other supplies in 2009-10 was over $1,112.*
- The average transportation cost for students in 2009-10 ranged from $849 to $1,483. Expenses could include public transportation, gas, car insurance, maintenance, parking fees, and travel home for breaks and holidays.*
- The average amount spent on personal expenses in 2009-10 ranged from $1,427 to $2,348. These could include lab fees, athletic fees and equipment, club, sorority or fraternity dues, study abroad expenses, medical expenses, and emergencies.*
These numbers help to get a sense of the college costs you’ll be facing, but they are by no means specific. The total cost of attending college is a very individualized and variable figure, as there are many items that add to the cost, and still others that reduce the cost. Different schools have different tuitions, housing plans,meal plans, textbook costs, and different fees, so the cost of college varies depending on what school you attend. All of these factors add up to the complete sticker price, and then there are a number of other factors – your financial aid award, scholarships, and a part-time or work-study job – that thankfully lower that number to the real price paid by a family.
Start your math by finding each of your prospective schools’ published expenses for tuition and fees, as well as room and board. Search on each schools’ website or look around the Financial Aid office’s website. Look for an itemization of the incidental costs, and apply your own judgment to the school’s estimates.
- When a school lists average travel costs, the figure is often inaccurate. This amount varies widely, based on how far from campus you live and how often you’ll go home. Creating a blanket figure which fits both students from 3,000 miles away and students who can drive home from campus in 15 minutes is impossible, so you would be wise to calculate your own travel costs.
- If you’re planning on having a car on campus, reconsider. Most schools don’t allow freshmen to have cars on campus at all. If you’re allowed to have a car, it’s invariably going to be very expensive. Most schools, especially those in urban areas, will charge a semester or yearly fee for parking passes. In addition to a pass, gas, maintenance, and insurance are some of the additional costs. Consider public transportation and school-run shuttle buses as alternatives to having a car. Riding a bike to and around campus is a great way to save money and stay in shape.
- What are your meal plan options? Some schools require you to have certain meal plans as a freshman. Some plans force you to use the balance before the end of each year or semester while others are more flexible. Odds are you’ll be eating at the dining hall most of the time, but know that even if you live in a dorm, you will likely have access to a kitchen where you could prepare your own, inexpensive meals.
- Personal expenses can also add up. Keep room in your budget for miscellaneous expenses, from eating off-campus to some spending on entertainment, travel, and anything else you might anticipate. Extra-curricular activities and sports aren’t always free: consider any fees or dues, and the cost of athletic equipment or uniforms if you’ll be playing a sport.
Most college guidebooks include tuition and fees and room and board totaled separately, while some add it all up. Try to find the itemized accounting, and add up the numbers yourself, while including any costs you think you’ll personally incur. See what academic year the costs listed are for; if it is the current year, add 5% as a reasonable expectation of next year’s cost. If you’re really ambitious, go ahead and run a four year calculation, increasing the cost by 5% or so each year. Given the highly variable nature of college costs, these calculations are about as close as you can get to determining the actual cost of college.
* Source: The College Board Trends in College Pricing, 2009.