The Hidden Costs of College

By federal law, colleges are supposed to tell students their full cost of attendance.

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By federal law, colleges are supposed to tell students their full cost of attendance—including all hidden fees, book costs, and living expenses. While many colleges post their COA on their websites, many post low-ball numbers that don't include fees or reasonable living expenses. And some don't include any price information at all and will reveal it only if you call them.

If you can't find your college's COA on its website, you can check out the federal government's free College Opportunities Online Locator or purchase access to U.S. News's Premium Online Edition ($14.95). Unfortunately, sometimes the costs listed on these sites are for previous years. But if you add about 5 percent a year for inflation, you'll have a fairly close estimate of what next year's bill will look like.

The costs of college include:

  • Tuition: the cost of classes
  • Fees: Don't leave out of your budget the growing number of fees being tacked on to college bills, including "student activities" fees, gym fees, health clinic fees, lab fees, technology fees, library fees, etc.
  • Room (or rent)
  • Board (or food)
  • Textbooks
  • Supplies: Some schools, for example, require students to own a computer.
  • Health insurance: A few schools require students to buy a campus health insurance plan. Others strongly recommend that students buy a plan that covers them while on campus if their home plan doesn't cover the area.
  • Transportation: The student will need to fund travel between home and campus, at the very least.