Paying for College: Hidden Costs

Author’s Note:  This posting is a follow up to last week’s entry, “Dollars and (Horse) Cents,” which addresses scholarships and financial aid.  For information on those topics, please click the link.

If you’re a high school senior who’s heard good news lately (you’re accepted to the college of your dreams!) and – even better – if you’re a student who’s heard great news (you’ve been awarded a scholarship!), you’re no doubt sailing into your final semester feeling great about the coming fall.  After all, you’ve done everything you were supposed to do and everything has worked out beautifully.


Think you have college all paid for in the fall?  Don't forget the hidden costs!
Think you have college all paid for in the fall? Don’t forget the hidden costs!

Before you get too excited about the amount of money you’ve received from your dream school to help offset the cost of attending and before you start creating a decorating scheme for your dorm room, there’s another financial matter you need to consider.  (Equestrians, this one can hit you particularly hard in the pocketbook if you aren’t careful!)

I refer here to what are known as the “hidden costs” of college education; that is, the additional costs that accumulate once you’re on campus but don’t appear in your financial aid materials.  Some of these costs are small but others can be substantial and require solid budgeting skills if you’re trying to stay free of debt as an undergraduate.

The most common hidden costs for college students are:

  • Transportation.  No matter if you’re attending school an hour from home or six hours from home, it’s going to cost you something to get back and forth between your house and campus for school breaks and any incidental trips home that you decide to take.  Fuel costs can sometimes be tricky to nail down, but many campuses have ride sharing services to connect drivers and passengers and make carpooling a cost-effective option for some.  For more distant students, be sure you’ve budgeted for train or plane tickets, ground transportation to and from the airport or railroad station, and other fees associated with mass transit.  Even if you only go home once a year, it’s still a cost that needs to be taken into account.
  • Textbooks.  This is a big one!  Even though textbook rental companies have taken a large chunk out of what used to be an astronomical figure that students were asked to pay for books each semester, getting the right materials for your courses still isn’t cheap.  What’s more, we’re not talking about a one-time charge, but rather a per-semester charge that will vary based on the courses you’re taking.  And yes, there are ways to get around having to buy (or rent) textbooks, but unless you’re the fastest one to the three copies of Jane Austen’s Emma in the college library, you’re going to have to pay something each semester – a task made easier if you budget for it early.
  • Spending money.  College life wouldn’t be nearly so fun if it weren’t for the friends you’ll make and the great time you’ll have outside of the classroom.  Often, however, that extracurricular fun costs extracurricular money – whether it’s ordering pizza at 2:00 in the morning, meeting a study group at a local coffee shop, or taking that weekend trip to the nearest big city, those are all costs that fall outside of what your financial aid package covers.  Many students will pay for these incidentals with a part-time job on (or off) campus or their parents will send them an allowance.  Either way, though, your campus social life may well require additional money than you’ve budgeted for.
  • Equestrian activities.  Riders, this one is just for you because the reality of life as a college equestrian is – just like your life as an equestrian now – that it costs money.  Granted, showing in the IHSA, IDA, and NCEA are still less expensive than spending a week at Horse Shows by the Bay, but when you’re in college, every dollar counts.  So if you plan to continue your riding career in college, you’ll need to budget for lessons (most teams require two per week at minimum), association membership fees, entry fees, transportation to and from the barn, show clothes (if you don’t currently own them or if the team requires a certain brand/color), team attire (jackets, fleeces, etc.), and other associated costs.  (Yes, many teams and equestrian clubs will subsidize the majority of costs for their riders or the groups themselves will fundraise to cover their expenses, but many others don’t have that luxury and the riders must fully pay their own way.  Be sure to contact the coach directly to find out how the team at your chosen school does it.)

The moral of this story is that, while every college and university has scholarships and financial aid to offer their students, even if you’re one of the lucky recipients of a substantial sum of money to help cover your tuition, room, and board, there are still other expenses that will crop up during your college career.  Being aware of them now (and planning ahead!) is the best way not to be blindsided in your first semester.

(Need help figuring out financial aid to begin with?  Contact me!)


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