There's More to the Cost of College than Tuition


When saving money for a child’s college education, tuition isn’t the only concern.

A recent survey by the College Board found on-campus room and board accounts for more than 50% of the total cost at in-state schools. That cost can range on average from $7,500 to $9,500 per year. While financial aid is available to help pay for room and board, it often comes in the form of student loans, which have to be repaid with interest after graduation.

That debt can create a massive burden for students, but fortunately there are a few ways to reduce the total cost.

Living on Campus?

Most schools require students to live on campus during their first year, but that doesn’t mean they have to pay a premium. Many schools offer options when it comes to housing and meal plans. In many cases, the more people you’re willing to live with, the less you will have to pay.

For example, a single room at a classic residence hall with a meal plan at UCLA will cost $16,267 per year. If a student is willing to give up some of her personal space and live with two other people, the price tag goes down to $11,882. That’s a significant savings during a four-year period. Students also have options when it comes to meal plans. Most schools offer plans that include two or three meals a day. Each student should consider their habits before making their choice. If the student will be making some of his meals in the dorm or sleeping through breakfast, it would be much more economical to choose the plan with fewer meals.

While each college has its own way of structuring meal plans, the University of North Carolina, for example, has a unique variety of options for students. You can choose from an unlimited plan, value plan or block plan. According to UNC, the unlimited plan will cost around $2,000 per semester, but students can save $500 if they use the 10 meals a week value plan. They can save even more if they choose the block 120 plan, which includes 120 meals for the entire semester for $1,250.

Living off Campus?

Some students look forward to having their first off-campus apartment, but they aren’t quite prepared for the price of everything that comes with it: utilities, deposits, cable and groceries. However, with the right preparation and budget, it can be an affordable option.

The first thing to consider is where to live. It’s very important to be flexible when you are on a budget. In many cities, the most expensive apartments are close to campus. If students are willing to live farther away and drive, the price tag will most likely come down (though the costs of keeping a car if you weren’t intending to have one could offset these savings – crunch the numbers to figure out if it’s a worthwhile option).

If students are determined to live in the hip neighborhood next to campus, they might want to consider a smaller apartment and be willing to give up a few luxuries like a dishwasher, central air conditioning or a washer and dryer. Just like on-campus living, students can also save money if they decide to have roommates. Brigham Young University student Tony Bertolino, who applied for and received a grant from the foundation I run, thought he was definitely going to have to find roommates to be able to afford an off-campus apartment. “I really didn’t want to live with anyone,” he said, adding that without the grant, “I’d probably be living in a crummy apartment with three roommates.”

If you can’t find scholarships or grants to help pay for college, the most affordable off-campus living arrangement is usually living with parents or another family member. For most students, it’s not the ideal situation, but would they rather live with their parents for a few more years or graduate with $40,000 of debt? Looking at the big picture might make it an easier decision for everyone.

How Room & Board Costs Work With Financial Aid

Financial aid is based on the full cost of attendance; that includes tuition, room and board, books, transportation and personal expenses. Each school determines what that cost of attendance will be. Most institutions don’t award enough financial aid to cover the full cost of attendance.

For students who live on campus, the money for tuition and room and board comes directly out of their financial aid and they receive a check or direct deposit for the remaining amount. For those who live off campus, only the money for tuition is taken out of financial aid, and the rest is given to the student.

That means the student is responsible for using that money to pay all of their bills including rent, utilities, groceries and other expenses. At the time, it can seem exciting for a student to find so much money in their bank account, but it’s important to remember some of that money will most likely have to be paid back, with interest. Whether their parents or the students themselves will have to take on that burden, it’s important to recognize where that money is coming from and what it’s being used to pay for. Taking some cost-saving measures along the way to reduce that debt can be beneficial in the long run.

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