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Hidden College Costs: What You Have to Pay and How to Cut Down

Sometimes extra college expenses sneak up on you. Don't get caught off guard with this list of common hidden fees and costs, plus ways to combat them.

You and your student have tuition, room, and board taken care of with scholarships, grants, work-study, savings, and possibly some loans. You know you must figure in some costs for textbooks and dorm accessories, but is that all you have to factor in for expenses? It’s unlikely. The hidden costs of college might surprise you. Here’s a straight-to-the-point bulleted list of commonly added costs that can tack on hundreds and even thousands to your family’s college expenses, plus some ways to cut down on them.

Insurance plans

  • Health costs: Even though most colleges have student health centers for minor ailments, colleges require your student to have health insurance. You can keep them on your policy until they graduate, but if your family insurance doesn’t include your student, you’ll have to secure coverage. You can apply either through a private student health plan or the government health insurance marketplace. Be sure to notify the college of your coverage so they don’t bill you for theirs.
  • Computer insurance: If your student is bringing a computer to campus (especially a laptop), I highly recommend purchasing insurance for it. It covers loss, damage, and theft and is worth every penny. Check your homeowner’s insurance plan to see if this is already covered first.
  • Dorm contents insurance: Although most campuses say they’re secure, students tend to leave their doors unlocked and let anyone into their halls, even if they don’t know them. This insurance is very inexpensive but worth the cost.

Related: Health Insurance in College: What Options Are Out There?

Campus amenities fees

  • Fitness centers: Some colleges include these in tuition but some don’t. Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University charge up to $80 per semester for the use of their on-campus facilities. Inquire about these costs before your student enters college in the fall.
  • Parking and car registration: Many colleges discourage freshmen from bringing cars to campus. But if your teen is commuting, they’ll have to pay those fees to park while they attend classes. Without a college parking sticker, tickets will add up quickly.
  • Dorm damage deposit: This fee will appear on the bill of anyone living on campus. Expect to pay this fee every year—but don’t ever expect to get it back. College students are notorious for abusing their dorm rooms. Even if your student is nice and tidy, odds are their roommate won’t be.
  • College campus cards: These cards are used for on-campus necessities like snacks, printing and copies, and class supplies from the campus bookstore. It’s like a debit card, and you or your student will need to load the card with money as it runs out.
  • Technology fees: Most colleges have computer labs, Wi-Fi access, ethernet connections, and video equipment. Colleges often charge fees to offset the costs of maintaining these services.
  • Lab fees: In addition to tuition, colleges charge fees for the use of lab equipment. If your student is a STEM major, expect to see these on the bill.
  • Activity fees: These pesky little add-ons appear on your bill every semester. They can start at $100 and go into the thousands. Every college uses them to offset activity expenses without having to state specifics. 
  • Greek life: If your student is considering joining a sorority or fraternity, there will be yearly dues involved (usually around $100–$500), not to mention all the other costs they will incur, from T-shirts and pins to formal attire and gifts for their sisters or brothers. This is a high-priced add-on, and the cost should be part of the decision to join.

Lifestyle costs

  • Travel expenses: If your teen is going far from home for college, don’t forget to factor in travel costs such as gas, airfare, etc. You can count on at least three or four home visits during the first year of college. After that, consider holidays and school breaks for the next four years.
  • Laundry services: Though it’s probably not going to be a huge expense (and some colleges don’t charge anything), students should still plan to spend around $20–$40 a month paying for laundry on campus.
  • Technology: Though some colleges will issue devices such as tablets and laptops to students, most don’t. That expense then falls on you. Pro tip: Apple offers a student discount that can really help when you’re buying devices for school.
  • Food: Your student will need to have a food budget. Be advised that meal plans won’t cover all their food costs. It’s typical for students to order delivery while studying or go out with friends. These costs can add up quickly.
  • Spending money: More than two-thirds of college students report receiving funds from home each month for spending money. The cost for this will depend on how much you’re willing to contribute toward their entertainment.

Related: Budgeting Best Practices All Students Need to Learn

How to cut some of those hidden college costs

Knowing there will be additional college costs that require budgeting, here are some tips to help you save some money on them.

Take advantage of all the free campus options

Entertainment costs can add up, so students should take advantage of the free entertainment offered on their campus. College can be a cornucopia of freebies; students can get free food during campus events and enjoy free movies and plays, intramural and local sports, and other events sponsored by campus organizations.

Look for student discounts

All students are issued a student ID upon their arrival on campus. This card is a goldmine of savings for college students. They can receive discounts for museums, movie tickets, restaurants, computer costs, and even transportation. Amtrack and Greyhound offer student discounts, and if your student is booking airfare, they can use Student Universe for discounted flights.

Use student health services

Colleges have student health centers on campus to provide basic forms of medical care, so there’s no need to pay a copay or leave campus to seek medical help. Unless it’s a medical emergency, these clinics are sufficient and can save you money if your student needs a prescription for common ailments like a sore throat. In addition to physical medical care, colleges also offer counseling to all students as well. If your student needs mental health care, these services are also available free of charge, so encourage them to take advantage.

Related: 5 Great Campus Resources Students Should Know About

Leave the car at home

There’s no need to take a car to campus. Leaving it at home will remove the cost of parking permits, mechanical upkeep, gas, and tolls from your total college costs. Most colleges discourage freshmen from bringing cars to campus anyway. They offer free transportation around campus and to stores and other off-campus destinations.

Work part-time

Whether your student qualifies for work-study or gets a part-time job close to campus, that money can come in handy for college expenses. Plus, studies show that students who work during college are more focused and do better academically than those who don’t.

Share with a roommate

This may seem logical, but it bears suggesting. Your student can share the cost of textbooks, dorm furniture like microwaves and mini-refrigerators, and so much more with their roommate. Sharing the cost of these pricier items lets you trim down on college costs even more and help out another family too.

Related: Top Ways to Prepare for Life With Your New Roommate

You can see how easily $100 here and $200 there can add up to thousands of dollars on top of the money you’re already spending on a college education. Be smart and plan for these expenses with your student. Encourage them to work during college, curb their spending, prepare their own food, get a coffeemaker, forgo Starbucks, and even use coupons from apps. Teach your student valuable saving and budgeting skills before they head off to college to help cut down on all these costs.

Haven’t talked to your student about expectations for college finances yet? We can help you facilitate the conversation with our article Parents, It's Time to Communicate About College Costs.

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About Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families about college preparation through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured online in the Huffington Post, Yahoo! Finance, U.S. News & World Report Education, Smart College Visit, and more. She is also a freelance writer featured on CollegiateParent, UniversityParent, TeenLife Media, and Road2College. In the past, she has written for Zinch/Chegg, Classes & Careers, Winterline Study Abroad, and GalTime online magazine.

Suzanne's advice has also been featured on podcasts like Prepped and Polished, How to Pay for College HQ, The College Bound Chronicles, and The College Checklist. Her articles have been featured in print publications created by UniversityParent, CollegiateParent, and TeenLife Media as well as in the book College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship, or Your Mind by Nancy Berk.


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