What Are the “Hidden Costs” of College?

The cost of attending college can vary wildly in plenty of ways beyond tuition and financial aid. It’s important to understand the complete picture before choosing the college your son or daughter will attend. Let’s take a look at these ”hidden costs.”

Living Arrangements

Some colleges offer cheap student housing for all four years. Meanwhile, other colleges force students out of the dorms after freshman or sophomore year. And some schools don’t have dorms at all.

Find out whether or not your college estimates the cost of off-campus living for later years in its room and board. Many will give dorm estimates, even though dorms might not be available.

If you’re going to pay for off-campus living at some point, the location of the college suddenly matters a lot more. A small town in Nebraska will be a lot cheaper than a school in Boston or Manhattan. A student’s living arrangements and location can make a large difference in the price of attending a school – especially if dorms are only guaranteed for the first (freshman) year.


If you’re in New York, you’re most likely going to need to ride the subway often. How much will a monthly subway card cost?

If you’re on a remote campus, are you going to have a car? How necessary is it for getting around? How much will car insurance cost in that town? Do you have to pay for garage parking?

Some schools are well-contained, and have virtually no day-to-day travel expenses. For others, a car is nearly a necessity. There is plenty of in-between, but as you can imagine, a school with minimal travel expenses can make a huge difference in the cost of attendance. And most of the time, the cost of a car (or other travel) isn’t figured into a university’s cost-of-living numbers.


Nearly every school has meal plans. But not every school offers it to all students – such as those who live off-campus. And a number of college students wind up skipping the cheap eats of the cafeteria for better quality food available in town.

This often winds up being the biggest hidden cost of attending college. If you’re in a small university town with little fare beyond the school’s walls, then the cost of eating won’t be significant.

But if your school is in the middle of a large city – and especially if students eat away from cafeterias often – then the cost of food can be a big surprise on your budget.

Most schools figure board into their cost-of-living numbers, but not a lot factor in a high degree of eating out or takeout food. Going to school in a major city offers plenty of opportunities for new experiences – but those costs can add up quickly!

But the biggest hidden cost is...

Not Graduating in 4 Years

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics determined that fewer than 40% of full-time students graduated from college within 4 years of enrollment, while almost 60% of students graduate in six years.

Therefore, it’s important to be laser focused on graduating in 4 years (and not the national average of 5 1/2 years). Otherwise, this can significantly impact your finances and affect student loans.

The more you know about these “hidden costs” for your student’s college education, the better prepared you’ll be in terms of financial planning.