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Understanding College Tuition, Room, and Board

The Basics of Tuition, Room, and Board Costs

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Now that your child has narrowed their choices of schools, it’s time to figure out what an education is really going to cost you. Unfortunately, that’s not as simple as just checking a college’s website for their “one size fits all” pricing.

Just like no two colleges will have the same pricing structure, it’s rare to find many students within a single college that are paying identical amounts. Ultimately, the costs of attending a certain school are dependent on a number of factors that reflect a student’s degree program, academic pace, and living arrangements.

The three major components that contribute to a student’s annual college bill are tuition, room, and board. Analyzing and discussing these factors in advance can help parents and students avoid sticker shock and save accordingly.

Tuition – The True Cost of Education

At the core of the college bill is tuition. It is the fee associated with actually taking a class, and is generally calculated “per unit”. For example, a college may charge $300 per unit for undergraduate students, which means that a three unit English class would cost $900 for the semester.

Often times, colleges and universities will provide a flat rate for tuition, which covers a minimum and maximum number of units per semester. This presents a unique challenge for parents and students in making sure they’re getting their money’s worth by taking enough classes each semester.

For example, a college charging $300 per unit may charge a flat rate of $4,500 per semester for anything in between 12-18 units. If you do the math, you’ll see that the student only taking 12 units is actually paying $375 per unit. Likewise, the student that is taking a full load of classes is only paying $250 per unit.

Room – Where is Your Student Going to Sleep?

While your child might insist that they won’t actually sleep during their college years, the need is as inevitable as it can be surprising. Many times, colleges require a student to live in the on-campus dorms their first year or two to help them get acclimated to college life.

Living on-campus is usually not the cheapest of options but does offer the convenience of a single, predictable cost for parents. Living off-campus, while often cheaper, can be filled with financial surprises such as security deposits, flaky roommates, and paying rent during summer vacation.

On-campus room fees, if arranged through the college or university, are usually quoted on a quarter or semester basis. If arranged for off-campus, they should be estimated on a monthly basis, with an allowance or set-aside for those unusual costs.

Board – How Much is Food Going to Cost You?

Even if your student lives on-campus, accounting for food costs is usually a separate line item in the college budget. Most schools offer a variety of meal plans for their on-campus dining establishments. These can range from a certain number of pre-paid meals to unlimited dining plans.

School meal plans offer the same cost and convenience trade-off as room plans. While it will generally cost more for a student to dine regularly on-campus, it is also a predictable amount. Further, it helps to ensure that the money you gave them for food didn’t end up funding a spring break road trip.

If your student is going to live off-campus, it will be important to track their unique grocery expenses for a few months while they are still living under your roof. This will give you a better idea of how much grocery money you should entrust them with each month.

Get an Estimate of Your Expenses

Most colleges provide a breakdown of estimated expenses on their websites. This information can usually be found under the “Financial Aid” section of their page. If you are considering an off-campus living arrangement and do not see an estimate, try giving the university a call.
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