College costs, which are sometimes referred to as the total student budget, include both billable and indirect costs.

Billable costs

These are fixed costs that the family is billed for by the college – such as tuition and fees, and room and board.

Indirect costs

These are the costs that don’t show up on the college bill. They include books, supplies and travel, as well as personal expenses such as laundry, telephone, and pizza. If your child lives and dines off campus, room and board costs will also be indirect costs. Your child can control indirect costs to some degree, by making smart spending choices.

Five basic cost components

The cost of attendance contain five components:

Tuition and fees

These are the costs of your child’s education. They may vary based on academic program and number of credit hours. If the tuition is not the same for all full-time students, you may have to calculate your child’s own tuition based on the charge per credit hour. The tuition charge will appear on the bill.

The College Cost Calculator will compute the total cost of a college degree. Input the posted tuition and fees from a specific school or use the averages supplied in the calculator.
Enter the name of the school into this calculator to get an exact cost for a specific school.

Room and board

These costs are billed by the college, if your child lives and takes meals on campus. The charges will vary depending on the room and meal plan chosen, but the average is similar to tuition and fees. Most schools offer three optional meal plans. Students with healthy appetites might want to supplement a cheaper meal plan with care packages from home of simple foods they can prepare in their dorm room. Off-campus living will shift this money from the college bill to other.

Books and supplies

Students are actually paying less for books now than they have in recent years. The national average at four-year public colleges in 2008-09 was $1,077, but today is $563. Textbook rentals, open-sourced materials, and digital books all account for the reduction in this cost.
Students (or their parents) can get a tax credit for money spent on textbooks through the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which will defray up to $2,500 spent on out-of-pocket college costs, including course materials, fees, and tuition. To qualify, single filers must have an adjusted gross income under $90,000. For couples filing jointly, the tax credit phases out at $180,000.

Personal expenses

The costs for things like laundry and telephone fall under personal expenses. Keep careful track of these as they can quickly build up. To help you plan, the national average for four-year public colleges is $1,989.00.


Travel is usually not added to the budget, unless the student lives more than a few hundred miles away from campus. If a figure has not been provided, make your own estimate based on the means and the frequency that your child plans to travel. If you can’t discourage your teen from taking their own car, someone needs to plan to pay the campus’s parking fees.


Expect texts and phone calls asking for money. Just as in normal life — maybe even more so in college life — things come up. Expect at least these.

Off campus

At some point during their college career (maybe right away) your child will probably consider living off campus. You will need to make a separate estimate of the expenses that will entail. In some communities, it may be cheaper to live off campus, particularly in a shared apartment or house. The off campus budget will include the cost of utilities, the Internet, and maybe transportation to campus. You may also have to buy some furniture, too.

Student clubs and organizations

Your child can benefit socially and professionally from joining one or seven of these, but each usually comes with fees. Sports clubs tend to be the most expensive, but even things like debate team or chess club will probably have a fee. Going Greek (fraternity and sorority life) will come with added expenses; if they move into a house, their room and board may cover it, but expect additional costs.

Following the team

Students who need to go to the game will increase their college expenses. Following less popular sports, like volleyball, tends to be less expensive than supporting the NCAA-ranked basketball or football team. Students get discounts, but the range of prices from school to school is significant.


College campuses draw entertainment of all caliber — from bot wars to French horn quartets, from comedians to rock stars. Put it in your budget in case your child doesn’t put it in theirs. Sometimes these culture activities are recommended for a specific class.


Despite the expensive food plan you pay for, students will spend money for food outside the system, nearly $800 a year according to a 21st Century Insurance survey.

Get the specifics

These cost components are usually listed in a college’s brochure or on its Web site. You can also use College Search to find breakdowns of costs at more than 3,800 colleges and universities.

The U.S. Department of Education has created as a gateway to comprehensive information on not only choosing colleges, but figuring out how to pay for a college education — if you decide to do that.

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