That first glimpse of a financial aid offer can induce sticker shock for even the most prepared students and their families. This is often due to this price tag including the cost of housing and meal plans, factors that are rarely considered in initial pricing discussions. These days, room and board costs could add up to an unexpected $14,000 to the final bill in some cases. A reasonable in-state tuition cost at a state university could turn a $15,000 college into nearly $30,000 at the mere mention of a shared room and breakfast buffet. Thankfully, there are a few things that can reduce your initial stress right away.
Getting past the initial sticker price shock
Colleges factor in the room and board amount based on what the typical first-time student chooses. This often means this price reflects the most expensive choices for incoming students. Why do they do this? Part of it is marketing. If families become accustomed to the higher amount, they may not question pricing options further and the college easily wins by selling a premium housing package. The other part of the equation is the desire to take care of out-of-state and international students. Many students attending college are far from home for the first time, so choosing a premium dorm room and all the extra “flex dollars” in their meal plan is often an easy price to pay for a parent looking to help reduce homesickness. In the eyes of the college, it’s better to overdeliver and suggest the best options on campus than market only their lowest price options and risk getting in trouble for misrepresenting their costs. This is great news for families looking for a better deal.
Looking into other living options
If you navigate to the housing page on your college’s website, you’ll find a breakdown of the boarding costs. This is where you can pull out your financial aid letter to determine the type of room that was quoted to you as a baseline of how much you could save. Identify if the prices on the website are quoted by semester or academic year so you can properly add the meal plans for an accurate adjusted quote.
Every college housing page should have a dorm building breakdown (which can be difficult to locate, so keep looking). There, you should see that different buildings are priced according to how many rooms are available, how recently they were renovated, and the amenities they offer. You should be able to locate a few options that are lower in cost than your financial aid quote. Compare rooms by looking at the layouts provided on the page, visit YouTube for real students’ room tours, or even tour these buildings in person if you can plan a campus visit. Another option to consider—which isn’t available on all campuses—is a triple or quad room. This is typically a larger room that fits three or four students instead of two, but it can drastically reduce the housing rate. At the University of Pittsburgh, choosing the quad option instead of the traditional double room at Holland Hall can drop the cost by almost $1,000 per semester.
Saving on meal plans
College meal plans follow the same “overdeliver” method as housing offers. Typically, the most comprehensive meal plan is the one initially quoted because many students will be far from home and can’t pop in for dinner with their families on occasion. However, every college has other meal plan options to consider to better fit your budget. Some plans limit availability of dining hall access over the weekend when students are busy and eating out with friends. Some limit the number of visits to the dining room to two meals a day, as many students are accustomed to not waking up in time for breakfast. Some reduce the number of “flex dollars” to use at campus restaurants or limit students to the dining room only. Looking once again at UPitt, students can save $600 per semester by limiting weekend choices and reducing “flex dollars” to use on campus. With a little flexibility, you can find a meal plan to help your dream school become a better financial fit.
The numbers involved with college costs can make students and parents nervous, but it’s important to remember the financial aid letter is just the first step in the negotiation by offering the suggested prices for the average student. Take a deep breath and look beyond the numbers to see the flexibility of room and board prices available at your school. The chances are good that you’ll find a way to shave a few thousand dollars off the original sticker price before you head off to college in the fall.
Don’t stop here in your quest to bring down college costs. Check out Hidden College Costs: What You Have to Pay and How to Cut Down to find more ways to save money.