College Affordability: A guide to the basics

Understanding the cost of college, and what is affordable, should be one of the first steps that parents and students take when beginning the college application process. However, as college consultants, we often find that it’s the topic that parents often leave out when talking to their kids about college. Knowing that, it’s always one of the FIRST topics our consultants at Monumental Beginnings ask parents and students to discuss.


The first step in talking about college affordability is to learn about the terms you’ll see most often at four-year colleges:


Tuition – This is the price of taking classes at college. Tuition costs depends on whether or not you are “in-state” or “resident”, or “out-of-state” or “non-resident”. Tuition is usually listed for an entire year, but always check.   Some colleges charge additional fees or a “differential tuition” for certain majors, in addition to the basic tuition. Most often, scholarships only decrease the amount of tuition and fees, not other costs.


Room and Board – This is the cost of food and dormitory, and it can range widely. There are many options available for meal plans, ranging from all-you-can-eat, three meals a day to much lighter options. Most colleges require at least a basic meal plan for students living on campus. Some also offer meal plans for students living off campus, a great option for the non-chef. Dorm options range from traditional, 2-person rooms, to suites and apartments, all ranging in prices depending on the “luxury level”. Not all schools guarantee on-campus housing for all students: some campuses don’t have housing for upperclassmen. Most colleges require freshman to live on campus, for good reason: living on campus usually encourages students to go to class, become involved and meet new people, all strong indicators of freshman success.


Some students decide to live at home or off campus, both options that may save money. If you rent off campus, be sure to include all other costs, including rent, food, utilities, insurance and travel, when comparing options.


Books and Supplies – Plan to spend about $1300 per year on books and supplies. Of course, some classes require a bigger supply budget: art, architecture, science labs, for example. Often students rent or buy used books, and many avoid the campus bookstore and opt for online options. Some colleges require a certain type of computer or offer laptops at a discounted rate. Also remember to include typical school supplies such as paper, pens, binders, etc.


Personal Expenses – This is a category where students can really budget wisely. Include items such as cell phone, eating out, sorority/fraternity costs (which can be hefty), renter insurance for dorms or off campus living, clothing, toiletries, laundry and athletic events. Students who participate in intramural sports often pay for their own equipment and uniforms. The initial expense of setting up a dorm room should be factored in, too – linens and other items are usually not included.


Study Abroad – Another expense that can vary by institution. If this is a “must do” in your student’s college career (and it can be an amazing opportunity), research how it’s financed. Does the student pay for transportation? Extra tuition? And, traveling abroad will incur lots of additional personal expenses.


Transportation – These costs include gas, maintenance and insurance for a student’s car, and parking fees for on-campus parking. For students attending college out of state, this could include airfare for trips to and from campus – Fall break, Thanksgiving break, Christmas holiday break, Spring break, and other occasional trips home. Don’t forget to include parent trips to visit their student, too!


Anticipating as many expenses as possible when budgeting for college can help avoid big surprises. When comparing colleges’ financial offers, most only include tuition and room/board. Other expenses could vary widely between colleges.