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8 Surprise College Expenses And How To Get Out Ahead Of Them

Simone Johnson  |  April 22, 2019

Tuition costs enough as is, but what about other expenses that can foil your college fun? If you wait until school starts to budget for them, you’ve missed the boat. Thankfully, there are ways to ease the burden.

When you think about college expenses, tuition is probably the first thing — if not the only thing — that comes to mind as having a big price tag. Fair enough. The cost of tuition has increased nearly 8 times faster than wages, and the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2018–2019 school year is more than $35,000 for private colleges, and between $10,000 to $22,000 for public schools, depending on in-state or out-of-state tuition costs.

But what about all the other costs? Many families overlook additional expenses that can put them in uncomfortable positions — or even result in a child needing to leave school — when the bills come due. A recent study of 11 colleges and universities by the University Innovation Alliance found 4,000 seniors in danger of leaving school because of unpaid balances that were less than $1,000. Although these debts aren’t enormous, they can make it impossible for students to register for their next batch of classes, thus opening the door to the “easy way out” of quitting school altogether. Thankfully, shedding light on some of the more common ones can allow us to prepare for what may lie ahead.

Expenses Related To Your Major

In high school, you probably didn’t have to pay for your goggles in chemistry class, but in college, it’s a different story. Students in many fields may find themselves responsible for bringing a lot more to class besides a laptop and book, says Elaine Rubin, a senior contributor for Edvisors, a financial aid and college scholarships site. For example: Music majors may have to pay for upkeep and repairs of their instrument, and if composition is involved, so is the purchase of special software.  Science, technology and engineering majors often need goggles or special gloves you can’t just pick up at Target. And fashion and interior design majors often need to purchase special clothing and material that isn’t often covered by the course fees alone.

How to Prepare: Although there’s nothing that can be done to eliminate these costs, students can avoid being surprised by them by asking their counselors and/or advisors about the breakdown of the courses in their major and what the required purchases will be, Rubin says.

Study Abroad And Internships

A semester abroad in Spain can change a student’s life, and the right internship can ensure they have the skills they need to land a job immediately following graduation. Unfortunately, many internships are unpaid, which means that none of the student’s living expenses during the internship will be defrayed, and depending on how many internships they do, they’re potentially missing out on several semesters’ worth of earning potential.  “You can end up paying $5,000 for a summer internship,” says Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, an education and technology company. “A cost the student has not planned for.”

A similar issue can arise when studying abroad — these experiences can be expensive since the cost of international flights, housing, and tuition can add up quickly. Even if a student has financial aid for their study abroad experience, items like food and housing may not be included.

How to Prepare: For interns, costs can be defrayed by finding a position in your hometown, so you can live with your parents while you work. Alternatively, you could seek to get a part-time internship in your college town during the school year so that you won’t face any additional housing costs. With study abroad, research the cost of living in the country or region before you go. It may be that you could have an equally transformative international experience in a cheaper city (or country) than the one you’d first considered.


Students may be accustomed to the freedom that a car gives them at home, but on campus, their ride may be nothing but a financial drain. “You may have to pay to park,” Rubin says. For example, parking permits at Louisiana State University cost $165 per year, or $80 per semester. “And be prepared to pay for repairs — and something else to keep in mind is that students sometimes get tickets,” she cautions. There are also all the typical car fees to consider, such as insurance and gas.

How to Prepare: Public transportation can be a godsend on campus, but it’s still something students will need to budget for. Also, in some cities, trains and buses don’t run 24/7, so students would be wise to devote some time to understanding schedules that will prevent them from getting stranded or having to call an emergency Uber. Speaking of Uber, ridesharing apps can be helpful, but the costs can really add up.  Make sure to include a realistic line item in your budget for them as well.


Some students may first come face-to-face with the high cost of textbooks while standing in the bookstore their freshman year — many books cost more than $100 each, and a year’s worth of books costs the average in-state student at a public college almost $1,300, according to The College Board.

How to Prepare: Some students may find that an earlier — and thus cheaper — edition of certain books are acceptable for their needs. Rubin suggests asking your professor about the importance of having the newest edition of the book, because the material in older editions is often the same. Also, check out companies like Chegg that offers textbook rental among other services, and Cengage that offers digital versions of textbooks for a set annual price of less than $200 per year.


Let’s be real: Some dorms look like gorgeous southern mansions, or Upper East Side high rises, but they may be the priciest options on campus. “You have to choose the financial option that is good for your budget,” Rubin says. “So you might have to sacrifice the luxurious lifestyle, so that when you graduate you’re not in crazy debt.” Also, note that even if you have financial aid or a full scholarship, it may only cover the “basic” housing option, so it’s possible to exceed the limits of what you’ve been given and end up with a bill at the end of the year.

How to Prepare: Check out older dorms, or those that may be labeled as “economy housing.” You may find that you end up with more roommates or a smaller space, but the cost savings can absolutely be worth it.

Extracurriculars, Clubs, & Greek Life

In college, there’s a club for everything and everyone. Some, however, come with their own set of fees. Greek life, in particular, can get expensive, with the cost of dues, parties, T-shirts and more. Meanwhile, students interested in intramural sports may also have to pay for equipment and travel.

How to Prepare: Any club or organization can give you a run-down on their semester dues and fees before you join. You can still be an active participant in your college social life, you’ll just need to be judicious about exactly what you sign up for.

Meal Plans

Choosing the right meal plan means knowing your stomach, and knowing how likely you are to cook at home. “If you find that you eat out more instead of in the cafeteria, maybe adjust your meal plan,” Rubin says. “But you should try to minimize how much you eat out, because we all know that could get expensive.”

How to Prepare: College may not be free, but sometimes the food is. There are many clubs that offer free food at their events and gatherings, so look for opportunities to show up and grab a plate. Also, some universities require that students purchase a meal plan during their freshman year, but you can always select the cheapest option.

Travel Home

Students who attend out of state colleges may find that traveling home on the holidays can be quite expensive. Peak travel times — around Thanksgiving, and spring break, for example — mean that ticket prices will be higher.

How to Prepare: Many campuses close their doors completely — including dorms — during holiday weeks, meaning that students wouldn’t be able to stay behind, even if they wanted to. Planning in advance is the key to keeping this cost down. Look to book your flights or rides home in advance, when options are cheaper and more plentiful. You can also look to get away with a friend who lives closer to campus, and would be willing to put you up for free with his or her family.

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