Additional Expenses 101: Here Are 5 Hidden Costs of College

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How much does college cost?

If you’re already listing tuition, books and room and board, that’s a good start.  

But it’s just the beginning.

College expenses extend well beyond the sticker price that universities typically provide in your financial award letter and can leave you scrambling to cover the extras.

“You could add $5,000 to $7,000 extra a year on top of what you’re already paying,” according to Jamie Dickenson, a Certified Educational Planner. “The hidden cost of college, I think, is almost more drastic than actual costs because nobody thinks about it, until they’re in the middle of it.”

And taking out additional student loans is a costly option to cover the gap between your original financial aid award and the additional expenses — just ask the people who currently hold $1.48 trillion in outstanding student loans.

Here are some of the hidden costs of college that might be missing from your list — and what you can do to cut them.

5 Hidden Costs of College

When you receive your financial award letters in the mail, it can be tempting to rely on what your school says will be your expected cost.

But even those who qualify for need-based aid won’t receive enough to cover the total expenses. A 2018 analysis of Pell Grant recipients, found that students were left footing 16% of their college bill after scholarships, grants and federal student loans were factored in — paying an average of $12,000 for the first year.

And the amount that you pay for your first year isn’t necessarily going to remain constant for your entire college career.

“You have to be vigilant from the beginning to the end,” Dickenson said.

We found five hidden costs of college that you may not have considered — and that you won’t be getting money for in your financial aid package.

1. Your Major(s)

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Undecided? It could cost you more than the time you wasted taking unnecessary classes.

“Changing their major — that’s probably one of the biggest expenses,” Dickenson said.

Why? In an effort to get college students to graduate on time — in theory, an admirable attempt to encourage families to save money — some states have adopted excess credit hour (ECH) policies. Under those rules, students can be charged extra for taking credits beyond a predetermined limit — typically 115% to 130% of a degree’s typical required credits. 

So if your degree program requirements are 120 hours, you could start getting socked with fees after 138 credit hours, which is easy to do if you spent your first two years pursuing a different major (or two).

The hidden cost of college, I think, is almost more drastic than actual costs because nobody thinks about it, until they’re in the middle of it.

But even if you don’t change majors, your degree could have costs associated with it that you might not have considered initially.

Majors that require expensive equipment or materials — engineering and aviation, to name two — charge fees above and beyond the credit hours. And colleges don’t typically share (or cover) those costs when they disclose your financial aid award.

“When these kids are going to become commercial pilots, the flight fees are almost more than their tuition,” said Dickenson, who noted that a college’s annual aviation fees could reach $12,000 to $15,000. 

And the fees that you’re charged your freshman year could increase as you progress through the program to cover the cost of smaller class sizes.

For example, Auburn University’s college of engineering charges $420 per semester for freshmen. However, after your first year, the fees increase to $735 per semester.

Dickenson also warned to be wary of programs that could disqualify you for your current financial assistance. Some colleges offer fast-track programs that place undergraduate students in graduate-level courses to help them complete their programs earlier — but could also cause them to lose scholarships that are only available to undergrads.

How to Cut Costs: Make friends with the financial aid office early on — like, on your first college visit.

Setting up an appointment with a financial aid officer — not the student assistant who answers the phone — is essential, according to Dickenson. When you schedule the meeting, ask for the person’s name and contact info — preferably a direct phone number and email address so you can reach them faster when you have questions.

Gather your questions ahead of time based on your situation. This might include determining your qualifications for need-based vs. merit-based awards, and finding out which ones are renewable. You’ll also want to ask about fees associated with your major and upperclassmen courses.

Trying to nail down the exact costs can be tough — Dickenson said she’s worked with families who’ve had to call five or six times to get a definitive answer about their eligibility for a scholarship, for instance.

“If you can get it in writing or get it in an email, that would be great,” Dickenson said. “But a lot of the universities won’t do that.”

And if you already know what your intended major will be, ask to schedule a separate tour of the department. 

When you’re there, get the names of students and faculty who may be willing to give you honest answers about their experiences concerning costs and potential sources for additional financing (think department-level scholarships). 

After you get home, compare your notes from the financial aid office and the department tour. If there are discrepancies, reach out to the financial aid officer again to get an answer.

After you receive your financial aid award letter, speak with the financial aid officer again to clarify the terms of the awards and potential gaps in financing. Dickenson suggested that parents can make a second in-person appointment while the student attends the new student orientation event to review the letter in person.

2. Campus Life

Pop quiz!

You arrive on campus aware that your financial aid package only covers the general “room and board” expense the college listed. So what happens when you walk in the dorm and see that sad, empty, sparse room? Do you:

A. Decide your ratty comforter from home and favorite stuffed dolphin will suffice as furnishings for the nine months you figure you’ll be living there.

B. Consider it an experience in minimalist living that only adds to the educational value of college. 


C. Head to Bed, Bath & Beyond so you can make your space look less like a jail cell and more like an HGTV “after” video.

Guess which answer Dickenson hears most often?

“I had one mother call me and tell me that the carpet was so bad in the dorm room that she was hiring somebody to come in and replace the carpet,” Dickenson said. “She said, ‘Well it doesn’t match anything that we have and I’m just going to replace it.’”

Although you might not decide to rip up the dorm floor (which your college would probably frown upon anyway), you could end up shelling out hundreds — or thousands — to decorate your temporary accommodations. 

Beyond your “room,” there’s the “board,” which includes your campus meal plan. Colleges can offer a variety of meal plans, so find out which one is covered by your financial aid package. If it only pays for the basic plan, but you eat like an all-star athlete, you could be racking up additional food costs. 

How to Cut Costs: Consider these DIY dorm decorating ideas instead of splurging on the matching throw and tapestry. 

And beyond that mandatory meal plan, use these strategies to keep food costs down.

3. Transportation

Students Alexandra Philippidis, left, and Camryn Kennedy take advantage of free bikes through a bike share program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., on October 23, 2019. The yellow bikes are used to commute to and from class. Students can also borrow white bikes to go off campus. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Uber has changed the college experience.

“Five or six years ago, all the kids wanted a new car,” Dickenson said. “The majority of the kids that I’m working with now as seniors do not have their driver’s license and have no desire to drive because they just want to Uber everywhere.”

In fact, only 69% of 19-year-olds had their driver’s license in 2016, according to a U-M Transportation Research Institute study, down from 89% for that age group in 1983. 

But a ride-share habit can be a costly one, especially if you go to a college where drivers are in enough demand on game days that they’re able to double or triple their rates. 

Dickenson related the story of one exasperated mom who called when her son charged $800 worth of Uber rides in one month.

“Take your credit card off your Uber account,” she advised the mom.

How to Cut Costs: When you’re checking out the campus on your initial tour, ask about public transportation options and their schedules. 

Many colleges offer free shuttles around campus, and some, like Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, offer free on-campus and rental off-campus bike programs.

Learning the public transportation options in your college town could provide a secondary benefit: you can look for a (more lucrative) off-campus job. Double win.

4.Greek Life

Ah, the rush of… rushing. It can mean memories and bonds that last forever. But along with Greek life comes membership dues, fundraisers, parties and the obligatory T-shirts. 

At Washington & Lee University, for example, the average annual cost for a non-resident sorority member is $4,387 — in addition to the new member charge of $595. If you live in a sorority house, that number climbs to $15,949.

How to Cut Costs: Check with the fraternity or sorority you want to join. Some chapters offer their own payment plans, scholarships and financing. 

You can also apply for jobs within the house — think mopping floors or washing dishes — to help cover the cost of living with your sisters or brothers.

5. Extracurriculars

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What’s college without making memories playing intramural soccer or marching in the band?

But the college brochure-worthy moments filled with good times and good friends aren’t covered by your financial aid package.

“Especially these club-level sports where these kids still travel around to all the other universities to play — they’re on their own for their expenses,” Dickenson said. “It can add up to thousands and thousands of dollars in additional costs that people are just not aware of until you’re in the middle of it.”

How to Cut Costs: Making a budget for your extracurriculars before you leave for college can help you prepare for the expenses without sacrificing the fun.

Also, understand what you’re signing up for before. The difference in cost — and experience — associated with playing in the band at a smaller school could be drastically different than the cost of joining a nationally recognized marching band.

“I’ll say sometimes to these parents… I know that you’re all excited that the kid’s going to be in the band, but you’re going to have to pay some additional money and so you need to be prepared for that,” she said. “These kids are spending practically every weekend on the road.”

One way to determine costs is by asking members of the organization how much they spend participating in competitions, traveling for events and even paying for uniforms. It all adds up.

But by thinking beyond your acceptance letter’s financial aid package, identifying the hidden costs of college before you arrive on campus and budgeting for the full college experience, you’ll be able to avoid the need for additional student loans.  

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.