Read an Excerpt
The Unexpected Costs of Attending College You Must Prepare For
Excerpted from What College Really Costs by U.S.News & World Report, L.P. © 2005
You've already forked over money-lots of money-for tuition, room, and board. Isn't that enough? Nope, sorry. You'll need a computer. And textbooks. And airline tickets home for Thanksgiving. And pocket change for the laundry machine. And a pizza every once in a while.
The cost of attending college is much more than the fixed costs charged by the school. Trouble is, it can be difficult to be precise when tabulating students' ancillary expenses.
So what kind of extra costs should college bill-payers realistically expect? And how on earth can a student live on a shoestring budget when one chemistry textbook alone costs
$183? Take a deep breath, and read on.
Books, books, books. It's the college expense that never seems to end. According to "Rip-off 101," a report released in early 2004 by the State Public Interest Research Groups' Higher Education Project, the average student in the University of California system spends $898 on textbooks each year. And that's typical. The figure is up 40 percent from seven years ago, a jump the report attributes to the practice of bundling textbooks with CD-ROMs and workbooks that never escape their shrink-wrap. Also, new
editions of old books drive up prices by making last year's version useless.
Of course, used books have always been a low-cost alternative. Instead of relying on campus bookstores, which often buy back books from students at low prices and resell them at a profit, many schools have online book exchanges that eliminate the middleman. AtBrown University's bookstore last year, a new edition of The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition: Tragedies, for example, sold for $42.60. A used version went for $31.95. The Brown Daily Jolt textbook exchange, however, hawked the book for $25.
The main problem with campus book exchanges-and relying on a campus bookstore for used tomes-is limited supply. Luckily, there are books lurking in dorm rooms in every state, so wider Internet book exchanges can be another boon for students looking for a bargain. Bigwords.com has a search engine that scours prices for used and new books all over the Web. And buyers should also peruse Half.com by eBay, where students can buy
directly from a worldwide network of used booksellers.
When it proves impossible to find a used book-especially when a teacher demands a newly published title-try book behemoths like Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and
Walmart.com. They can often undercut smaller bookstores as long as shipping doesn't get too expensive. And international sites (like Amazon.co.uk) usually have dramatically lower prices than their U.S. counterparts. Some websites, like Bookcentral.com, specialize in the sale of textbooks bought on the cheap from overseas vendors.
Of course, a student can always share a book with a friend or head to the library. Many schools have a few copies of all required reading material available on reserve, meaning they can be checked out for a few hours at a time. Yes, it's a hassle, but it's free.
For many colleges, tuition covers only basic lectures. Anything on top of that may cost more. Chemistry labs, for example, usually require an extra fee. Such supplemental
class expenses are rising all over the country. At California State University–Long Beach, for example, the extra fees students pay for geology classes and film class screenings have been climbing in concert with tuition, says Bursar Nancy Eckhous. And, increasingly, cash-strapped colleges are socking students with a variety of a la carte fees. At Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, for instance, one student faced a $50 fee for a pianist who spent extra time helping her rehearse for a singing recital.
Students participating in extracurricular activities should expect to pay something out of pocket these days. If you're not good enough to make the varsity soccer team at Penn State University but want to play soccer, it cost $260 last year to play with the club team. The university's spelunking club, the Nittany Grotto cavers, charges $15 a year. And you have to bring your own flashlight.
Colleges can no longer afford to indulge wasteful or tardy students. After watching its paper costs skyrocket, the University of Oregon, which has been attempting to hold the line on fees, started charging for computer lab printouts in 2002. And woe to those who dillydally before deciding to drop a class. Some private schools demand that students who wait until the third week of school to drop a class forfeit 40 percent of the tuition, an average of-gulp!-$800.
Real World Stories
During the spring of 2004, Danny Yagan, then a sophomore at Harvard University, was stunned by the roughly $100 price tag on a textbook he needed for a macroeconomic theory course. Searching online, he found a European website selling the book for $40 less than the campus bookstore. "It was crazy," Yagan recalls. So Yagan and seven similarly frustrated friends created Redline Textbooks (www.redlinetextbooks.com), an online bookstore for Harvard students. The students import most of the textbooks from overseas-so far, the business is mostly limited to economic and science tomes-undercutting campus bookstore prices. "We might expand to Harvard Law School or
the Medical School, or even beyond," says Yagan.
Having the right computer on campus is as important as buying the right textbook. While students still use their PCs as glorified typewriters, taking notes and cranking out term
papers, they also use them to sign up for classes, study course materials, email instructors, send instant messages to classmates, and play the latest movies and music.
Students headed to college will most likely be buying a new computer. Some students don't have to worry because their institution provides one. All students at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, are handed an Apple iBook on Day 1.
Before buying a computer, make sure it works well with the other computers, networks, and software on campus. For example, if the college has gone wireless, a compatible connection to take advantage of the Internet access offered in classrooms, libraries, and dorms is key. Check the college website for details. Massachusetts Institute of Technology's, for example, lists configuration recommendations plus specific computers that the university has deemed compatible.
College students can nab numerous discounts on computers, often negotiated by the school with particular manufacturers. Finding these deals may take some sleuthing.
Check the school's and manufacturers' websites. The online Apple Store for Education has webpages customized for thousands of schools. School bookstores usually boast
excellent deals. And in the hot summer months, many retail computer stores offer back-to-school sales.
The question of whether to buy a desktop or a laptop may have plagued previous generations of buyers, but it's a nobrainer for college students today. Laptops win hands down, as they are chock full of power and memory-and they save space in cramped dorm rooms. Wireless connectivity is a must. Most current notebook models come with built-in access to the popular Wi-Fi wireless technology. If you're buying a laptop that has Wi-Fi as an option, get it; it will be well worth it. Consider, too, the software programs that come with each machine. The computer could house an impressive library or a recording studio. If there's some wiggle room in the budget, spring for a larger display. Choosing a 14-inch screen over a 12-inch one may cost an extra couple of hundred bucks, but your eyes will thank you.
Real World Stories
When Haley Bevers decided to attend Texas Tech University in her hometown of
Lubbock in 2001, her parents bought her a new Ford Explorer. "Being local, there's
an automatic assumption that travel would be cheaper for me," she says. Wrong. Bevers spends more than $1,400 a year on gas, parking permits, and maintenance for her SUV. And that's just the beginning. Over the past year, for example, Bevers flew to conferences related to her major in Dallas, Denver, and Philadelphia, drove to three sorority retreats, and vacationed with her family in Lake Tahoe.
Travel expenses can take a large bite out of a budget, even if the student lives close to school, walks everywhere, and doesn't give a hoot about spring break. Many students want to get a career edge by attending conferences in their chosen field, interviewing for jobs, or interning in far-away cities.
Because there's no one-stop-shop for cheap tickets, students who fly to and from school need to become savvy comparison shoppers. "For the most part, students have to use
the same techniques that people of any age use," says Ed Perkins, author of Business Travel When It's Your Money. The old standby of calling travel agents and visiting the major online sites-Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz-to dig for deals still applies. These sites will keep students apprised of deals via email.
And don't forget low-cost airlines: Most offer low fares that are free of pesky length-of-stay restrictions. Most of the really good airfares on major airlines are for travel within a
30-day period-a difficult scenario for students considering three-month summer stays. Student travel agencies can sometimes help get around the restriction, as they negotiate
special ticket arrangements with the airlines. Such agencies are often located near campuses, like STA Travel (www.statravel.com). With their flexible schedules, students can take advantage of Tuesday-through-Thursday flights and red-eye or midday flights, when fares are usually cheapest. And, of course, there are always frequent flier miles. If your home or college is a hub for one of the major airlines, you'll probably want to join its frequent flier program.
In this age of cellphones and high-speed Internet connections, the college student's phone bill isn't what it used to be. Many students opt to ditch their landlines in favor of cellphones. Today's national calling plans can make cellphones a moneysaving choice for long-distance calls.
Parents who want their far-flung offspring to call home easily may want to consider a national service for multiple members of the family. But keep in mind that Junior won't
just be calling Mom and Dad. With many plans offering unlimited "in-network" calling-customers have an infinite number of minutes to chat with people using the same service provider-it might be worth it to wait until the student's first week of school to make a decision on a phone. Certain service providers tend to be more popular on particular campuses because of stronger signals, a bevy of nearby stores, or school-sponsored discounts, especially in more rural areas. With many students living a vampire-like existence-studying and socializing into the wee hours-plans with unlimited night and weekend minutes might also be a good bet.
Parents uncomfortable giving their child carte blanche when it comes to long-distance calling may appreciate prepaid national plans. They typically charge a credit card each month for a fixed amount of minutes. If the monthly limit is met, more minutes can be added automatically or service can be cut off until the next month.
Prepaid calling cards also offer another way to avoid phone bill surprises. But take care in using them. Many prepaid calling cards impose a surcharge when used with a pay phone. And be mindful when comparing rates on the calling cards. The ones that seem to have the lowest cost may have hidden connection charges. For tips on how to choose a calling card and how to use it wisely, visit the website (www.consumer-action.org) of Consumer Action, a San Francisco–based nonprofit.