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College expenses 101

Date posted:  8/8/16 09:00:00 AM

There's no way around it: college is expensive.

From yearly tuition to fees and living expenses, today's students can expect to spend a few thousand dollars a year to get an education. Luckily, some schools will offer generous financial aid options that can cover a majority of the yearly expenses.

Additionally, scholarships, grants and student loans can help you cover the costs of attending college. But whether you're a soon-to-be senior or a fresh-faced freshmen, it's important to understand the expenses of a higher education and exactly where your money is going. Along the way, you may even find out about benefits you didn't know you're paying for.

By far the biggest expense is the yearly tuition. Your tuition will vary depending on the type of educational institution you decide to attend. According to The College Board, the average tuition at a public, four-year school for an in-state student is about $9,410 per year. Community colleges are cheaper, while private and out-of-state tuitions are more expensive.

Add the tuition up over four years, and it can be intimidating knowing how much a college degree will cost. The average class of 2016 graduated with nearly $37,172 in debt. Luckily, there are numerous ways your child can pay for school.

Encourage your child to study as hard as they can while in high school in order to qualify for scholarships. These can be offered by the school, various departments on campus, communities or organizations, and even your employer.

Grants are another option, but the U.S. Department of Education will usually determine if the student qualifies for financial help, such as Pell Grants.

Then there are student loans. While maybe not always ideal, loans can help cover the cost of school. Any combination of these three financing options will help students afford the cost of tuition.

Fees are a generic term used when you look at the cost of attendance, and they can encompass many different expenses. Fees will vary depending on the school, but some common costs under this umbrella include:

  • Membership at campus recreation center
  • Free printing at the library
  • Parking
  • Health
  • Technology

These fees are mostly mandatory, although there are a few exceptions. When calculating the total cost of attendance, fees must be included.

Room and board
Living options are another area where costs will vary depending on the school and the student's grade level. Freshmen are typically required to live in on-campus dormitories for their first year and it may cost extra to live in newer dorms.

Additionally, meal expenses will fall under this category. Universities will usually have various meal plans for a student to pick from, which will range in cost.

Following the freshmen year, students may then choose to live off-campus in apartments or group houses. If this is the case, living costs will noticeably decline because it is not as expensive as living in a dorm and students will be able to lower housing costs by living with a few roommates. However, living off-campus means abiding by the rules and payment schedule landlords set. Utilities, groceries and other bills, such as Internet, can be put into this spending category.

And while room and board is one of the main categories of college expenses, it can be reduced to next to nothing if a student decides to live at home and commute to class every day.

Textbooks and other reading materials will likely cause you to do a double take when you first see the expected cost. The College Board estimated students spend, on average, $1,300 every year on reading supplies.

Some classes and majors are notorious for requiring students to always purchase a brand new copy of the newest edition of a textbook. But for other classes, you should remind your child that textbook costs can be drastically reduced if they know where to look.

Renting books is one of the first options any student should look at. If the campus library is out of stock on the items you need, services such as Amazon and Chegg will allow books to be borrowed at a flat fee for the entire semester. The school bookstore may also loan materials out.

If renting isn't an option, students should consider stopping by used bookstores or even thrift stores to see if any required materials are there. With the rise of tablets, e​-books can also serve as a viable option. Project Gutenberg offers over 50,000 e​-books at no charge.

Buying or renting previous editions of required textbooks is another alternative. Students should talk with their professor beforehand to ensure they won't miss any important material by obtaining older copies.

Before your child heads off to college for either the first or last year, it's always important to get a breakdown of important college expenses so you know what to expect.