During high school, many students and parents likely learn the basics of paying for college, from tuition costs to scholarship possibilities. But when it's time to actually pay the bills, even well-prepared parents may face some financial surprises.
Here are a few of the biggest shocks parents say they had as they began to pay for college.
1. Textbooks: The Tirloni family anticipated spending money on science textbooks for their daughter, a freshman studying biology at Texas A&M University. But they were still taken aback when the first semester's textbook bill totaled about $1,000, mother Kristina says.
"I had no idea the price of books had gone up so high," says Tirloni, who lives in Texas. "The price of books was the most startling up-front cost we had."
Next semester, she says, the family will consider used options on Amazon before opting for a prepackaged bundle of new books at the campus bookstore.
[Learn about renting textbooks.]
2. Parent expenses: Parents aren't enrolling in college, but they could still have expenses associated with the college experience. North Carolina resident Julie Rains wanted to take part in her son's orientation at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, but between the fees for the parent sessions and a hotel room near campus that allowed her to make the early morning meetings, the event added up to a sizable, and unexpected, college cost.
"You're starting to run $400 to $500—I think my parents paid that for a semester when I was in school," says Rains, a UNC alumnus, of the parent orientation. "The orientation session was very valuable as a parent; it was just an extra cost."
[Learn about free campus events for parents.]
3. Meal plans: Food is an unavoidable cost for any student, but the campus meal plan could result in wasted money if funds are left over after the first term. Some universities allow students to scale back their plans mid-semester, or to roll excess points or dollars over to the spring semester. For the Tirloni family, though, extra meal points are hurriedly being spent on bulk items like cases of water at the on-campus convenience store.
"[My daughter] has a ton of money left in her account," Tirloni says. "That's money you paid for, and you lose it. Going forward, we're really going to be more cognizant of what she's spending."
[Find out how to save on personal expenses in college.]
4. Student loan interest rates: Student loans are often included in college financial aid award packages. But loans aren't free money—they need to be paid back, with added interest.
With two sons in college, the Schaffer family was shocked by their financing options, mother Judy says. The family ultimately used a home equity line of credit (HELOC) to help fund degrees at Touro College and Johns Hopkins University, after they didn't qualify for substantial work-study funds and shied away from interest rates on private student loans, she says.
"We expected [work-study] to be higher; we expected interest rates to be lower," says Schaffer, whose family is from New Jersey. "To ask him to get loans at 6, 7, 8 percent when we can get a loan at 3 is not financially smart."
[Avoid these assumptions about college financial aid.]
If you have questions about student loan interest rates and funding options, reach out to college financial aid administrators, who should be able to help you evaluate choices based on your family's situation.
5. Scholarships: There are many opportunities for college scholarships, but finding the funding might take some digging. "I think people put a lot of responsibility on high school and college advisers, and even colleges themselves, in finding [scholarship] programs for their students," Schaffer says. "It's really on the students' and parents' shoulders to find this stuff."
[Get tips on finding college scholarships.]
Learning from experience, the Rains family's second son will start his scholarship search earlier in high school, Rains says, and will cater each application essay to the colleges he applies to, in hopes of standing out for additional funding.
"If we had paid more attention to the application process, not just in terms of seeing it as an application for entrance but seeing it as a key to getting scholarships, that would have been more helpful," Rains says.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.