These five high-cost areas can easily cut hundreds—or thousands of dollars, over the course of four or more years—from your bottom-line higher education cost.
1. Meal plans
You don't pay for four months of food in advance at the grocery store, so why would you pay for a semester's worth of food from the cafeteria at college in advance? If a meal plan is not a required purchase for your student (like those staying in dorms), the plan should be weighed thoughtfully. Often, students or parents get sucked into buying these at freshman orientation, thinking it’s a “good deal,” only to have them go to waste by semester’s end.
Consider the cost of a plan meal-by-meal. For instance, a semester's worth of meals at the University of Texas (15 weeks) costs $1800. Assuming your student will actually eat three meals a day, seven days a week, the cost per meal comes to a shockingly-high $5.71. Your student will be better off paying meal-by-meal and eating in, especially for breakfast (a bowl of cereal, after all, costs about a quarter). Many meal plans go unused, and there are no refunds. So if you are able to forgo the meal plan, do it. And if there is pressure to buy one, see if you can opt-out if your student has strict dietary needs or allergies.
2. Parking permits
Paid permits for on-campus parking can cost anywhere from $25 a semester (at commuter community colleges) to triple-figure amounts for universities and garage parking. Contrary to popular belief, these permits are not required by every student who owns a car while going to college; they are optional purchases. If you're a freshman living on campus without a car, make sure you are not automatically charged for a permit. If you do have a car, ask yourself if it's absolutely essential to park on campus. If you live close enough to walk or bike to campus, save the cost of the permit. If there is a city public lot nearby or you can opt for city street parking, you may not need to buy one at all. Better yet, consider public transportation options (i.e. commuter train or subway) or even the university's options (like an around-campus bus).
3. Course fees
The cost of tuition and fees can be staggering. The University of Texas at Austin, boasting that its costs are "low relative to its peers" still charges about $10,000 per year. Review carefully the list of fees assessed upon registration and payment for classes to make sure they are applicable. For instance, if you are taking a biology class but are saving the lab portion until next semester, you should not be assessed a lab fee (which is often the equivalent of one course hour of tuition). Keep a careful eye out for other lab courses (such as foreign language courses) or courses more than three hours such as studio art courses or remedial core courses. Make sure you are only being charged for what's on your schedule and what's required for the actual courses, not the department; mistakes in assessing fees do occur, so review carefully and don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't understand a line-itemed amount.
Students don’t need new $500 laptops to go off to college; in fact, many professors are now banning them from use in the classroom to curb cheating and minimize distraction (ditto for individual recorders, additionally banned to respect student privacy issues with voicing comments in the classroom). Students already pay technology fees (which vary per institution, anywhere from $15 for a general printing account like at my local community college to over $100 at some larger colleges for general technology availability) to have access to labs, printers and free paper. Additionally, some libraries and labs rent electronic equipment for free, including not only laptops but also Kindles (like my community college library does—again, for free!) and even other devices. Students may be better off using campus equipment exclusively, saving the several-hundred dollars that would normally be dropped on such devices. There's even no need to purchase a flash drive these days, as most colleges give students free storage space "in the cloud" on virtual sky drives.
Students don’t need to purchase expensive books from the campus bookstore, which can range anywhere from $50 for subjects that don't change often like grammar and history or as high as $300 for subjects with frequently-updated texts like accounting and nursing. They can rent directly from the publishers (many renting at up to 75 percent off a purchased price), purchase at independently-owned off-campus stores, buy online for discounted prices, download an e-book option for a fraction of the cost, or even use textbooks that might be on reserve in the library for no cost at all.
Consider these price differences on a literature anthology entitled Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing (published by Cengage) for a first-year freshman:
- Buying from campus Barnes and Noble bookstore: $140
- Buying direct from publisher's site online: $132.49
- Buying used from seller online at Advanced Book Exchange: $78.96
- Renting direct from publisher's site online: $39.49
As you can see, buying all new books each and every semester can be a costly financial trap for students and parents.
Spending less up-front can make the financial hit of college more bearable for students and their parents. It also helps establish a lifestyle of frugality that can be healthy for any college student.