7 Surprising College Costs No One Thinks to Budget For

glass jar full of coins to pay for college costs

College fund | iStock.com

You’ve researched tuition costs and know how much you’ll be charged for room and board, but if you thought your college bills stopped there, think again. From dorm room fridge rental to graduation fees, surprise expenses can add thousands of dollars to total college costs, throwing both parents and students for a loop.

“Hidden” college costs can add up to an additional $250 to $500 every month, according to Edvisors, a website that provides information on planning and paying for college. For the unprepared, the extra expenses can be a major financial strain. Sixty-four percent of college students have run out of money before the end of the semester at least once, Edvisors found. Unanticipated costs were to blame for drained bank accounts in half of those cases.

Parents and students often underestimate or overlook what earning a degree will really cost, especially if they look only at the cost of attendance estimates provided by the school. Those official numbers might not really capture a student’s day-to-day financial reality. Undergrads spend $765 every year eating off campus, The Washington Post reported, even if their parents have already shelled out for a meal plan. A bus pass to get to an off-campus job or internship can be $50 a month or more. Dorm insurance or renters insurance might cost a couple hundred dollars per year, according to Consumer Reports. Laundry isn’t free. You might pay fees for joining a club or storing personal items over the summer. Concerts, sporting events, and movie nights add up too.

Careful budgeting can help students and parents cover the true cost of college (and teach students about financial responsibility). Keeping an eye out for college student discounts and free perks can help too. To prepare for out-of-the-blue costs, set aside a small emergency fund.

As you consider a degree’s real price tag, don’t forget about these seven college expenses, which parents and students often overlook.

1. Application and testing fees

SAT prep books

SAT preparation books | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Unexpected college costs hit before a student even sets foot on campus. At an average of $41 per school, application fees alone can total hundreds of dollars. Fees are even higher at elite schools like Stanford, where you’ll pay $90 for the privilege of likely being rejected. The school accepted just 4.8% of students who applied in 2016.

Taking the SAT (including the essay test) costs $57, but if you register late, need to send extra score reports to schools, or want to have your score verified, you’ll pay even more. ACT fees are similar. Each Advanced Placement exam costs $93, though if you earn a high score you may be able to save yourself some money on tuition, or at least bypass some introductory courses. Financially strapped applicants can request a waiver if they can’t afford application or test fees.

2. Hidden fees

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Man getting robbed | iStock.com

Colleges like to show off their swank amenities in admissions brochures, but what they may not highlight is how much it’s going to cost you to use that state-of-the-art fitness center with a rock climbing wall. In addition to tuition, room, and board, expect to be hit with fees for the fitness center, health insurance, and everything in between. Often, the fees aren’t optional.

“Schools will charge you whatever they can,” college student Angela Pupino wrote in an article for Quartz. You might be charged for a visit to the student health center, to print a paper for class, for the cap and gown you need to wear to college graduation, and even for using a credit card to pay all the bills you’ve racked up. The extra expenses don’t stop once you have your degree in hand either. Expect to shell out more if you need copies of your transcripts for graduate school applications.

3. Greek life

fraternity house

A fraternity house | Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

A fraternity or sorority may provide a ready-made social network, but it comes at a price. Annual dues, fines for infractions (like skipping a required meeting), fees for social events, and regular purchases of T-shirts and other paraphernalia can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year.

“The optional and indirect costs of Greek life were huge, and they often didn’t feel optional,” Christine DiGangi of Credit.com wrote. In addition to chapter dues and other fees, she estimated she spent more than $1,600 on miscellaneous sorority expenses, including formal events, gifts for her sisters, and clothing and makeup.

4. Transportation

woman at the airport

Persona at the airport | iStock.com

When calculating college costs, parents and students may neglect one big item: the cost of transportation. Students who attend an out-of-state school may spend a thousand dollars or more every year on round-trip flights between home and campus. Even students who attend a campus just a few hours away may spend a few hundred dollars per year on gas for weekend trips home. And then there are late-night Uber rides, campus parking fees, and student bus passes. And while it’s hardly mandatory, living it up in Mexico for a week during spring break is another cost parents and students may forget to budget for.

To save, parents and college students need to get creative. “While fares during peak season can cost hundreds, earning free flights is easier, and simpler, than many think,” travel expert Erin Gifford said. She recommends parents use a tool like Reward Expert to figure out the best way to earn and use miles. Services like College Carpool connect students willing to share rides, while Bolt Bus and Megabus offer dirt-cheap fares, she added.

5. Supplies and lab fees

woman using microscope

A college student using a microscope | TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Depending on their major, students might have to shell out extra money every semester for lab fees and instructional materials. At some schools, these fees amount to hundreds of extra dollars per course. Biology and chemistry majors aren’t the only ones who have to pay up. Students in art classes may be charged studio fees as well, plus the cost of supplies, while music or performing arts majors might have to pay for practice room time.

6. Study abroad


Facade of the Sorbonne in Paris | LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

Studying abroad isn’t just an excuse to party in another country. Students who spend a semester or more immersed in another culture are more likely to find jobs after graduation and earn higher salaries, studies have found. For many, the experience is life changing. It’s also expensive. Passport and visa fees, flights abroad, and travel within the country where you’re studying all add up. You can expect to spend an extra $10,000 for a semester abroad, according to the Washington Post. Students should also pay attention to whether their credits from international study will transfer, Fox Business noted; if not, they could end up spending an extra semester at their home campus and thousands more dollars to graduate.

7. Internships

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An intern at work | iStock.com

College students who completed a paid internship were more likely to find a job and earned higher salaries than those who didn’t intern, a Georgetown University study found. Expect to pay good money to gain valuable real-world work experience, though. Even if a student lands a paid summer internship, their modest salary may not be enough to cover their living expenses, especially in a big city. For-credit internships also come with a price tag, since you’ll pay your school for the privilege of working for a third party, often for free, according to Money.

The high cost of interning puts poorer students at a disadvantage, so some schools offer grants for those who can’t afford to take on unpaid internships. Part-time jobs, budgeting hacks (like never passing on the free food in the break room), and even taking out a little more in student loans can also help cover the cost of a internship.

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