Understanding the College Cost Structure
While tuition comprises the largest chunk college education costs, there are additional expenses students need to factor in to get a true sense of what an education at a specific institution will set them back. College expenses include:
Tuition and Fees
Tuition is what colleges charge students for taking classes. Tuition can be set by the units that make an academic year, such as semesters, or it can be based on a per credit basis, so if the cost is $500 per credit, a four credit class costs $2,000. Tuition costs can vary depending on a student's major, number of credit hours taken, and at public schools, whether a student is from in or out-of-state. Student fees can include charges for lab use, library access, student parking, health insurance and graduation expenses, among others. Many schools now combine tuition with student fees in one bill.
Room and Board
Students who live on campus pay room and board expenses. The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2013-2014 ranged from $9,500 at four-year public schools to $10,830 at private schools. Colleges usually offer a variety of dorm room options and meal plans priced at different cost levels. Housing and meal options are also usually available separately, so students who live off campus can choose to have some or all meals on campus.
Books and Supplies
Many schools today require that students have laptop computers, a not insignificant expense. Most courses require textbooks and many others require a variety of other materials, such as art supplies. Students will need notebooks, pens, folders, printing paper, and other general supplies as well. The yearly books-and-supplies estimate for the average student at a four-year public college is about $1,200. Students can save by buying used textbooks or even renting them per semester. To help students anticipate and plan for these costs, most colleges estimate and publish the average costs for books and supplies at their institution.
From dorm room necessities, such as sheets and pillows to cell phone bills and paying for the occasional pizza, a student's personal expenses will add up. Students spend money on cell phone bills, toiletries, haircuts, laundry, snacks, movies and other entertainment, and many other items. It's important to create a budget for these expenses that’s based on what you can afford on a weekly, monthly or semester basis.
If you commute to campus, you'll need to factor in transportation costs including gas, tolls and parking. If you live on campus, chances are you will travel home at least a few times each year. Again, create a budget for travel costs based on what you can afford. The earlier you make train and flight reservations, the lower the cost.
How to Defray Cost: Scholarships, Grants and Other Free Money
Many students qualify for some sort of financial assistance to help pay for college. While student loans are popular, they do need to be paid back with interest, so they cost money in the long run. Several types of financial aid awards do not require repayment, and thus work to maximize your college return on investment. These include:
Scholarships are a form of financial aid that does not have to be repaid. They're usually either need-based or merit-based and awarded to students with academic, athletic or artistic talent. There are many sources of scholarships ranging from the colleges themselves to non-profit organizations to the private sector. Scholarship amounts run the gamut from a few hundred dollars to full tuition.
Grants are another type of financial aid award that does not have to be repaid. Federal grants, such as the Pell Grant, are awarded based on need. States and college also award student grants. There are even career-specific grants, such as the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, which provides up to $4,000 to students who agree to teach in low-income school districts upon graduation.
The work-study program is a federal program that provides part-time jobs for students, allowing them to earn money to pay education expenses. While students do work for their wages, they are free to spend their earnings however they wish.
Assistantships are usually awarded at the graduate level and are paid academic appointments that involve part-time teaching or research. Like work-study, students earn their wages, but are free to allocate them as they see fit.