I was the first in my friend group to send a child to college. I’m pretty sure my friends — whose kids were seven or eight years from high school graduation — got sick of my impassioned pleas to learn about the cost of college. At the time, they were more concerned about filling today’s lunchbox than how they’d afford to feed a college student in the future.
All too often, parents bury their heads in the sand about the cost of college. I was one of these parents until I could no longer afford to be. The cost of college is a “better the devil you know” kind of thing, so I still talk about it with friends — and, occasionally, passing strangers.
College is expensive. This is a simple fact for most families. Until you get to know the actual numbers, it’s impossible to compare college to other big-ticket purchases like a car or a house. And, because our lives are busy, it’s easy to send the worry of paying for college to the back of our minds and consider it a problem for tomorrow.
Here, we lay it bare for you. While you still need to run the numbers on your child’s colleges of choice, our guide breaks down the different categories of expenses and shares some hidden costs to help you get to the bottom of the true cost of college.
Remember that you do not need to have the full cost of college in your bank account on the first day of your kid’s freshman year. And, there are many ways to make college more affordable. By starting to save early, researching scholarships and grants and applying for financial aid, you really can help make college a reality for your child.
Spend some time learning about the power of a 529 college savings account. This is a tax-advantaged account that allows your savings to grow, and investment earnings are free from state and federal tax when used for qualified education expenses. It’s never too late (or too early) to open an account.
Now is the perfect time to start schooling yourself on the cost of college. Let’s get started!
The sticker price of tuition can be eye-watering, and it’s typically the biggest single expense related to attending college. But there’s more to the cost of college than just tuition. Here are some of the other things to consider when creating your budget:
- Net cost: The net cost of college is the amount of money you pay after financial aid is taken into account. The sticker price of college is not always an accurate reflection of what you will pay — and that’s good news if your child is eligible for any merit- or need-based financial aid. Be aware, though, that colleges typically consider student loans your child is eligible for as “financial aid.” This means the cost presented to you in a “financial aid package” could well be sticker price minus the dollar amount of loans your child can assume.
- Housing: The cost of housing varies depending on whether your kid chooses to live on campus or off campus. On-campus housing is typically more expensive, but it can also be more convenient.
- Books and supplies: The cost of books and supplies can add up, especially if you’re a science or engineering major. Think about those lab fees and be sure to factor this cost into your budget.
- Transportation: If you’re not living on campus, remember the cost of transportation to and from school. This could include gas, parking and public transportation. It could also include flights or train travel between school and home for holidays and summer.
- Personal expenses: This will be your child’s food, laundry and entertainment.
In addition to these costs, there are also some other hidden costs associated with college. These can include things like:
- Application fees
- Additional fees related to study-abroad programs
- Fees required to use recreational facilities on campus
- Memberships to clubs and Greek organizations
- Dental and vision insurance. Even if your child can remain on your medical insurance until age 26, this may not include coverage for dental or vision care.
How to make the cost of college affordable
It’s important to start thinking about the cost of college early — even if your child’s freshman year is a decade or more away. The sooner you start planning, the more time you’ll have to save money and find ways to reduce the cost.
Here are some tips for budgeting for college:
- Start saving early. The earlier you start saving, the more time your money will have to grow.
- Look for scholarships and grants. There are many scholarships and grants available to help students pay for college.
- Apply for financial aid. Financial aid can help you cover the cost of tuition, fees and other expenses. Be sure to complete and submit the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) when your child submits their application for admission.
- Live on campus. Living on campus can be more expensive, but it can also save you money on transportation and other expenses. Living on campus can also help you budget, especially if you bundle in a meal plan that is consistent month to month.
- Take advantage of free resources. Many colleges offer free tutoring, financial aid counseling and other resources to help students save money. Local businesses may also offer student discounts, especially if your child’s school is located within a college town.