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The perils of unexpected college cost
Every family knows college is expensive. What can make it really pricey are those costs that few people anticipate. - photo by Jeff Wuorio
College begins shortly for millions of American students (if it hasn't already). That can mean thousands of dollars for tuition, books and other anticipated expenses.

Unfortunately, that's when things can really start to add up entertainment, travel, pizza nights and other expenses that are as much a part of college as any classroom.

Families and students are all too familiar with the sticker shock of higher education. Unfortunately, that glazes over some fairly significant and unexpected budget busters that many students encounter during their college years.

It pays to know some of the primary suspects and ways to deal with them.

Parents need to understand that these incidental expenses are real and many are reasonable, said Coleen Pantalone, professor of finance at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University. The key is to figure out what the limits are and how much their student should be expected to contribute to this part of their educational experience.

Little things add up

Most families are aware there's more to paying for college than just tuition, books and room and board. But, what may be surprising are the expenses that add up before their child even chooses a college.

Expense No. 1 is the cost of visiting prospective schools, particularly steep if that involves air travel. Add to that hotel expenses, food and, if a school passes muster, the expense of actually applying (Yale, for instance, levies an $80 application fee).

Then theres the cost of simple fun. From early-morning Starbucks runs to late-night pizza deliveries, spur-of-the-moment spending is an understandable part of a complete college experience.

College is the beginning of a new life, Pantalone said. It is perfectly natural for students to get together with their new friends on the weekend and that generally takes money.

As Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at, a website focusing on planning and paying for college, pointed out, spending just $10 a week on pizza adds up to some $2,000 over the course of a four-year college career.

From there, the rap sheet of possible expenses seems limitless, including:

  • Living group fees, such as fraternity/sorority dues or dorm "taxes"
  • Athletic center fees
  • Student activity fees and other club fees
  • Orientation fee
  • Health center fee and student health insurance
  • Furnishing and decorating a dorm room, from bed sheets to a dorm fridge, microwave and lamps
  • Computer, peripherals and software
  • Study abroad courses
  • Travel expenses during school breaks and summer vacations
That can pile up. For instance, Amherst College's website includes a breakdown of estimated added expenses, including student fees (student activities, campus center programs and residential governance): $832; personal expenses: $1,800; health insurance (which may be waived): $1,771; and travel: up to $2,500. That's a worst-case scenario of $6,903 that doesn't even touch the college's basic comprehensive fee of $62,940.

Many colleges assess additional fees for labs or materials related to the students major, said Chester Goad, director of disability services and a graduate instructor at Tennessee Technological University. For example, medical majors may need to purchase medical or health-related kits or pay for additional health-related tests. Similarly, engineering majors may need to pay for engineering-related items or even computers or software.

Do your homework

The list of possible expenses may prompt students and parents to consider a commute-from-home college education, which has its own price tag, from commuting expenses to parking fees. Instead, being proactive and planning in advance can pay off in a big way.

First, estimate all the costs of attending a certain college or university. Many schools have net price calculators that go beyond tuition, room and board to include transportation, textbook costs and other expenses.

From there, plan your college visits carefully by focusing on schools of genuine interest and eliminating those on the bubble. If possible try to visit more than one college in a day to cut hotel and travel costs.

Take in as much as possible when visiting schools. For instance, if a school offers a free meal, consider whether it was satisfying or so awful that youre tempted to hit the nearest McDonalds once you leave campus.

Leverage contact with students already at the school. If you take a campus tour, ask your guide about any unexpected costs or expenses he or she has encountered. For instance, Alexa Brenner, a sophomore at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, said she wastes a lot of money online shopping, particularly in the winter months, because she enjoys getting mail.

Pay attention to application costs. If youre using the Common Application, know that roughly half the schools that accept it charge no application fee if you apply online. Forbes recently published a list of 25 top-tier schools that have waived application fees.

Establishing a budget

In coming up with a budget to manage costs, be as thorough as possible, covering everything from the expense of fixing a broken laptop to the cost of furnishing a dorm.

Take the budget process a step further by setting parameters as to how much the student should be expected to pay versus what falls on Mom and Dads shoulders.

Amanda Berger of Derwood, Maryland, a junior at McDaniel, said many students may be in for a shock when it comes to understanding who is going to be responsible for what expense.

You realize that when you are at college, things that cost money are on you not your parents and that you need to budget for the necessary costs that come along in addition to those things you want, she said.

Students can also help themselves out financially by making the most of vacations and summer. Socking as much money away from a job as possible and earmarking it specifically for unanticipated costs can better hone other financial resources for those costs that are more predictable.
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