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Costs: Building a College List – With Eyes Wide Open

If you follow any media, you might think that the college search and application process is solely about low admission rates or checking boxes to package the perfect application with the goal of how to be "selected." While classes taken in high school, grades, and test scores help indicate the fit between student and school, what is often overlooked is student choice, which should include affordability. 

Too often, students and families skip the "affordability" step when building their college lists and often wait until the spring of senior year when it's time to determine where to go. It's easy to get stuck thinking that there are only a limited number of affordable schools when initially looking at the listed sticker price, especially when looking at private institutions versus public institutions. Determining affordability and which schools may be a financial fit requires a few more steps, including factoring in graduation rates to compare the costs for the entire time a student will attend college. Looking at four years versus five or six years of undergraduate tuition/costs and using tools to determine what the costs to attend may look like will provide a more realistic financial picture. Incorporating tools like a Net Price Calculator, located on college websites, MyinTuition, or the FAFSA Federal Student Aid Estimator, can help estimate and standardize the costs so that families can compare apples to apples and have a clear idea of the actual costs, and what a family may be expected to pay, versus a listed sticker price. Jeff Selingo created a buyers and sellers list that also helps to reveal the differences between the sticker price and realistic costs, and which schools utilize merit aid and grants as part of their enrollment practices, giving students and families a more accurate cost to attend that can be used when building college lists. While these tools and resources are good first steps, they won't reveal the entire picture of what it costs to attend college. In The New York Times article by Rochelle Sharpe, Those Hidden College Fees,” some of the "add-ons" to factor into the college budget equation are highlighted and help remind families that you have to look at more than just the annual tuition. 

By recognizing the "hidden" costs of attending college while building a college list, students and parents give themselves time to weigh the pros and cons of their choices without feeling the pressure of a looming May decision. Costs can range from:

  • Bedding for XL twin beds - the default in most dorm rooms 

  • Seasonal gear, e.g., Winter gear (parkas, boots, sweaters) 

  • Food and activities outside of dorm living and meal plans that are integral to a social life 

  • Accurate estimate for books and supplies 

  • A student's new school friends planning a "fabulous" trip for a school break, which comes with a hefty price tag. 

Equally important are transportation costs that extend beyond the start and end of the school year, which can include holiday breaks and the affordability of coming home at Thanksgiving or parents' visiting days. These costs are not limited to travel, but may also include hotel/food accommodations. and are details that provide a better assessment of what a college budget will truly look like. The college search can be a full-time job, but with education and guidance, students and families can learn more about the true cost of attending to make the informed decisions needed for this important investment. 


Visit the college.u Financial Resources page for more resources and articles.

Looking for more tips and inspiration to help you start your college journey? Field Guide for an Inspired College Journey packed with insights and resources to help you navigate your college path, is now available to order online and coming soon to your local bookstore.

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