What Will it Really Cost to Attend College?

one-hundred-100-dollar-billAs you’re starting your college research or perhaps comparing financial aid award letters, one of the questions on your mind might be “how much will it really cost to attend college?”

With the cost of college going up and up, here’s a quick guide to breaking down those costs and some tips on how to save money.



Cost of attendance line items

Tuition and fees

This is the actual cost of your classes and is usually fixed.  This may be one of the largest costs of attendance.

Room and board

This is what it will cost to live in campus sponsored housing (on or off campus) as well as for your meal plan.  Often, some housing options will be cheaper than others (facility to facility) and some configurations will be cheaper than others (3 roommates vs. no roommates).  Do your research before selecting a housing option and make sure that you turn in your forms early to have the best chances of getting your desired option!  The meal plan is another area where you might have more flexibility and might be able to save.  Many colleges will allow you to choose the number of meals so think about your habits.  Is it realistic to plan to eat breakfast every morning when you usually wake up around 11:30am?  Or do you prefer to cook for yourself and don’t need very many meals at all?  Or do you have a really fast metabolism and eat quite a bit?  An unlimited meal plan might actually be the most economical option for you.  Also, consider applying to be a resident assistant as an upperclassman; some colleges provide a stipend or heavy discount on housing and meals.

Health insurance

Unless you are covered by your parents and opt to waive your school health insurance, you must pay for health insurance (and you probably want to in case of any health issues while on campus).

Books and supplies

This is one budget line item that you may be able to save money on.  The colleges provide an estimate of how much you might spend on textbooks and supplies based on a regular, full-time student.  Supplies are things such as notebooks, scantrons, and materials for a science lab; basically anything that you might have to purchase that is necessary for a class.  You may be able to spend less on your textbooks if you purchase used copies or rent a copy of the book for the term.  Most colleges also require that the books be available on reserve in the library so you can check it out for a couple of hours at a time.

Student activities fee

This fee is usually mandatory and you can think of it as a sort of “membership fee” for all campus-wide activities and resources.


This budget line is also one that you may spend a bit more or less on.  If you will be traveling to school every day, consider what the most economical mode of transportation would be.  Find out what options are available through the school (shuttle or bus service) and ask to find out if you can get a student discount on monthly passes.  If you’re going to have your car on campus, find out how much campus parking will cost and don’t forget to factor in the cost of fuel.  If you’ll be flying to and from home, consider joining an airline rewards program so that you can potentially rack up miles for free flights.  If you’ll be driving to and from home, see if there are other students who are also going to the same area and ask to carpool.

Types of financial aid awards


These are funds that you will need to pay back.


These are funds that you do not need to pay back.


These are funds that you do not need to pay back, but may have contingencies attached to them.

Merit-based awards

These are scholarships that are based on your academic achievements.  While you do not typically have to pay these scholarships back, sometimes they are contingent upon maintaining certain academic requirements like GPA and/or credits.

Maintaining your financial aid awards

Remember, you will need to re-apply for financial aid each year and each college may have their own additional requirements to access your funds.  Pay attention to the renewal deadlines and make sure you submit your materials in advance in case you run into any issues (i.e.: you can’t remember your pin and it will take a couple of days to reset it).

Visit https://www.youtube.com/user/FederalStudentAid to view some great short films that describe the different types of aid!

Finally, don’t be scared off by the sticker price of college.  Many colleges provide generous financial aid packages and you may be surprised to find that it may be cheaper to attend a private college than your state college.  You never know how much you will get so apply and see what type of package the college can provide for you!

Still have questions on how much your top college will cost you? Visit our College Admissions website and fill out our FREE College profile evaluation

By Jennifer Sohn Lim, Assistant Director of Admissions at Veritas Prep.