Unexpected Hidden Costs of College

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Originally published April 26, 2016 and updated on June 23, 2021.

My third child starts college in August. Over the years, we’ve learned that in addition to the astronomical costs of tuition and room and board, there are many unexpected hidden costs of college that we hadn’t planned for. It’s important to research all the possible costs of college college students will be facing so that you can best explore your options to pay for college and all the associated costs. 

ivy covered stone college building with text overlay

Education is important in my family. It’s part of our family tradition that I can trace back to my maternal great-grandmother and paternal grandfather. They both sacrificed to provide a better education than they had received for their children. That legacy has continued through the generations in my family.

With that legacy, it won’t surprise you (much) to learn that my husband and I started saving for our children’s college education five years before we had our first child. We had started saving by thinking of tuition costs and room and board. After sending my first “baby” off to college, we quickly learned of many more  unexpected costs of college. Although we’d been saving for college since before our children were born, the high costs of college expenses meant we needed to explore our options for scholarships, grants and student loans.

Most parents anticipate high tuition bills, but all the “little” additional costs add up, as well.

To be able to make a wise decision on how to best fund your child’s college education, you first need to come to an accurate estimate of the total cost of the college education your child will be receiving and that includes the hidden extra costs of college

Hidden Costs of College

You’re probably aware of the expected costs of college:

  • College tuition
  • Campus housing, a dorm room or other option
  • Items needed for the dorm room and studies
  • Dining Hall Meal Plan or budgeting for food
  • Books and fees (although we significantly underestimated the actual cost)

But it’s the additional expenses that keep popping up that surprised us again and again. Knowing the true and total cost of a college education will allow you to plan better and not be surprised by the seeming game of whack-a-mole with hidden fees popping up.

While the cost of the average tuition can vary greatly from public institutions to private colleges, these hidden college costs don’t vary in as large of a range of costs. It is possible to save on many of these expenses, but most of them cannot be entirely eliminated.

Unexpected Fees

Registering for and filing the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Financial Aid Profile –  Many schools require the CSS to receive a financial aid package. If the college requires the CSS Profile with College Board to be completed, you’ll pay a $25 fee to send your information to your school each year. If you qualify, the fee can be waived. But if you don’t qualify, that’s $100 you have to pay to find out if you qualify for financial assistance. 

Orientation Fees – Most college require your student to attend an orientation session scheduled in the summer. Some school provide an orientation session scheduled just before school begins, but often this session is reserved for international students or students traveling a further distance.  Orientation usually runs for three days and two nights. This means you’ll have the cost of transportation to and from orientation in addition to the college fee to attend orientation. Many parent choose to accompany their children to orientation to attend the parent information sessions and that will increase the cost to include transportation,  hotel rooms and meals for the parents.  The fee for orientation is approximately $500 plus travel costs, hotel and meals for the parents. 

Health Services Fees and Required Health Insurance – Most college charge a health services fee which allows your child to receive health care at the student health clinic on campus. Depending on the law of the state your student’s college is in, you may be required to purchase health insurance that meets that state’s specific requirement (you may find that your health insurance does not meet that state’s more stringent requirements). Health services fees are approximately $500 per year and student health insurance is approximately $3,000 per year. 

Student Activity Fees and Athletic Fees –  This is a required fee that funds student organizations, clubs and activities as well as intramural sports. Student activity fees are approximately $300 per year.

Lab Fees – Depending on the courses required for your student’s degree, lab fees can cost several hundred dollars a semester. Lab fees are approximately $2,000 for four years. 

overhead view of stack of college text books and calculator

Unpaid Internship – Most students, especially full-time students, look for internship opportunities to supplement their course of study, build skills and help them find a better job after graduation. While some internships are paid, a surprising number of internships are unpaid. This means that a part-time job may not be viable and may also mean extra expenses for room and board if the internship is over the summer.

Additional Fee Information

While you may be expecting some of these fees you may not be aware of the actual costs. Other fees you just may not have thought of before getting ready for freshman year.

Books and Technology Fees – Students will need to arrive at college with a personal calculator, a new computer and other specific equipment depending on the course of study. Each semester your student will purchase books and course materials required for the registered classes.  The approximate cost for equipment is a one-time cost of $1,000. The average annual cost of books is $2,700.

You can reduce some of these unexpected costs by purchasing used books and reselling them at the end of the semester. You can also take advantage of surge protector for your student. Many student dorms are in old, old buildings and you don’t want to risk damage to a charging laptop due to an electrical surge. You may also find that using the college campuses printing options are not convenient or sufficient for your student’s needs. Many students prefer to purchase their own printer and printer paper. A surge protector is a one-time cost of approximately $25, a basic printer is a one-time cost of approximately $100, and printer paper will cost approximately $40 per year. 

stone college building with tower with spires and trees

College Experience Fees

Sports Tickets – Depending on the college your student is attending , the cost of tickets for sporting events can add up quickly. Which sports events your student wants to attend also affects the price of tickets.  The approximate cost of sports tickets $200 per year. 

Greek Life –  The importance of joining a fraternity or sorority varies depending on what part of the country your student attends college in and your student’s personality and personal goals. If he decides to joining Greek life, the costs vary deepening on the school and whether he lives in Greek housing or not. Approximate Greek system costs range from $2,000 – $7,000 per year. 

college dorm rom with suitcases, boxes and piles of items on move-in day

Dorm Supplies –  These expenses usually occur in preparation for the first year of college. At a minimum your student will need a pillow, sheets, blankets, towels, hangers and office supplies. Most students also purchase or rent a refrigerator and microwave. Many students bring a TV, basic dishes, rugs, clothes drying rack and shelving units. The approximate one-time cost for dorm room supplies range from $300 – $2,000. 

view of items organized under bed on risers

Organizing Products – Most students also bring specific organizing products to make the most of the very small dorm rooms. Organizing  products include bed risers, underbed storage boxes, stackable storage tubs and shelving units designed specifically for dorm rooms. The approximate onetime cost for organizing supplies is $50 – $300. 

Safe – I highly recommend a safe designed to hold a laptop, your student’s important papers and any other valuable items. Hopefully your student won’t need the safe, but you never know what your student’s roommate or roommate’s friends will be like. It’s best to provide your student with the security of a personal safe, just in case. The approximate one-time cost of a safe large enough to hold a laptop computer is $125. 

Moving Stuff In and Out or Storing Stuff – Your student will need to move all her belongings into and out of her dorm or housing each year. You’ll either need to bring her belongings home or find storage near the college. Costs will vary depending on how far your student’s college is from your home and the cost of storage near the college. The approximate cost of moving or storing belonging each year is $200 – $600. 

boxes, suitcases and items packed into open back of SUV

Transportation Home – You’ll want to bring your student home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break if possible. Your student may have additional breaks when you’d like for him to come home. You’ll also have the cost of transportation to school in the fall and back home in the spring. These costs vary greatly depending on the distance from the college to your home and the time of year (travel is more expensive coming home and return for Thanksgiving and coming home for Christmas). The approximate costs for travel home for one year is $200 – $2,000. 

Parking Fees and Parking Permits for Car at Campus – If your student takes a car to college with her, you’ll have to pay to park the car on campus. Approximate parking fees per year are $200 – $2,000. 

Study Abroad – Many students take advantage of study abroad opportunities. The costs vary greatly depending on the program and your student’s college. Be sure to factor in the cost of transporting your student to and from the overseas location.  Approximate study abroad costs range from $8,000 – $34,000 per semester. 

Professional Clothing – Your student will need to acquire a professional wardrobe for interviews and internships. Costs vary depending on your student’s career field, climate where your student is interviewing and working and number of outfits he will need.  The approximate cost of professional clothing range from $400 – $2,000. 

Miscellaneous Costs – Your student will have additional costs such as doing laundry and purchasing personal care items, laundry supplies and general school supplies. There will also be individual personal expenses unique to each student. These costs will vary greatly depending on your student’s preferences and the school that she attends. The approximate cost is $300 – $800 per year.

Now that you have a better idea of what the total cost of your child’s college education, including the hidden costs of college, will be, you can asses how much you and your child can afford to pay and how much financial aid you’ll need to fund through scholarships, grants and loans.  When looking at student loan options, it’s important to thoroughly research what’s available. All student loans are not created equal. 

Knowing the full cost, including hidden costs, of college contributes to the best decisions on how to fund your student’s college education and their bright future. Be sure to pin so you can find this list of costs and resources later.

traditional stone college building on green lawn
graduates tossing caps in front of traditional college building
girl in graduation cap and gown standing in front of large group of graduates

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  1. My brother has three graduating form High School this year (yes – your read that right…three!). One is going to the college of her dreams and the boys have acceptance letters but have to make a decision. I’m sending this off to them!

    1. Oh, wow! And I thought it was tough sending two (two years apart)! I hope this information helps them, Monica.

  2. I would like to say that I am shocked by all of the extra costs that you listed. I am not though. We went through all of this a few years ago. Just when we thought we had it covered – there was something else. I am so glad you shared this, there are so many out there that need to know all of this.

    1. That’s exactly how we felt, Cynthia. Every time we turned around there was another surprise expense. I believe knowledge is power and I want to know up-front what to expect.

  3. There are so many costs! You have complied a great list of them. It is really helpful to have this list – thank!

  4. I have one living with me and is going to a local JC-He is finishing up his freshman year. My daughter goes back east to school (I live on the west coast) and just finished her second year.

    I told them both that they are responsible for some of the costs, even if it means they need to take out a student loan. There is a lot of research that more the parent pays, the more the kid plays while in college.

    This week, I just had two surprise costs: My son needed $120 to get some film developed for a class. Even though the whole world including professionals are using digital, this guy wanted black and white film. The teacher wanted 8 x10’s. Then my daughter needed $350 for some kind of registration fee for her school.

    1. I agree with you, Patrick, that kids should “have some skin in the game” when it comes to paying for college. Where does one even go to develop old school film any more?

  5. Great article! I never thought about the safe, but in this day and age it is a great idea. I am afraid of what these things will cost in 10 years when mine graduates high school. We have two funds set up now, a 529 plan plus a regular savings account to help with these costs.

  6. We have 4 children. College has been going on at our house for 7 years. In 4 of those years we had 2 kids in school at the same time. Expensive? Yes. Your list of surprise expenses is honest and real. We had most of those things come up. Two of my kids went to school in a smaller town which made some costs lower – the summer storage unit was a little cheaper, for instance.
    I’ll add two more expenses. My daughters were in creative-ish degree programs that required a summer internship. Creative and liberal arts oriented internships generally do not pay. So they lost out on a summer’s worth of income. Added to that their internships were in cities far from our home, so we had to find a place to live, extra transportation, eating away from home…etc. It was a major expense we did not see coming.
    Another surprise was the senior portfolio one of my daughters had to complete. This involved a cash outlay for materials, large-scale color printing, and other related expenses. It came to roughly $1000. This is all on top of lab and material fees built into the classes.
    We’ve graduated 2 so far, without debt. So it’s doable. But it’s important to go in with open eyes and make wise choices. Private/public; community college first?; out of state or close to home – it will all make a huge difference in the costs involved.

    1. Cheri, thanks for adding two more unexpected hidden costs. We’ve run into the internship vs. paying job dilemma, too. My oldest “baby” will be a senior next year so I’ll be watching for the portfolio charges. Sigh. Congrats on sending your “babies” to college debt-free. I agree, it is doable, but it takes research, work and commitment.

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