Understanding College Tuition, Room, and Board

The Basics of Tuition, Room, and Board Costs

Young man holding jar of money labeled college
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With the advent of the early FAFSA now coming in October, many parents and students find the period between January and May to be one of calculating and decision-making. You are trying to decipher the financial aid award letters that are coming in from the various schools your student applied to so that you can make a decision which is best for your student and your family.

It is time to figure out what this education is going to cost you.

Unfortunately, that’s not as simple as just checking a college’s website for their “one-size-fits-all” pricing. The surprising truth is that it’s rare to find many students within a single college that pay identical amounts. Ultimately, the costs of attending a certain school are dependent on a number of factors that reflect a student’s degree program, academic pace, and living arrangements.

The three major components that contribute to a student’s annual college bill are tuition, room, and board. Analyzing and discussing these factors in advance can help parents and students avoid sticker shock, and save accordingly.

Tuition: The True Cost of Education

Tuition is at the core of the college bill. It is the fee associated with actually taking a class, and is often calculated “per unit.” For example, a college may charge $300 per unit for undergraduate students, which means that a three-unit English class will cost $900 for the semester.

Some colleges and universities provide a flat rate for tuition, which covers a minimum and a maximum number of units per semester. It presents a challenge because students need to make sure they get their money’s worth by taking enough classes each semester.

For example, a college charging $300 per unit may charge a flat rate of $4,500 per semester for anything in between 12 to 18 units.

If you do the math, you see that a student only taking 12 units is paying $375 per unit, while the student that is taking a full load of classes is only paying $250 per unit.

Room: Where Will Your Student Sleep?

While your child might insist that sleeping isn’t necessary during the college years, the need is inevitable, but the cost can be surprising. Many colleges require students to live in the on-campus dorms during their first year or two to help them get acclimated to college life.

Living on-campus is usually not the cheapest option, but it does offer the convenience of a single, predictable cost for parents. Living off-campus, while often cheaper, can be filled with financial surprises such as security deposits, flaky roommates, and paying rent during summer vacation.

On-campus room fees, if arranged through the college or university, are usually quoted on a quarter or semester basis. If arranged for off-campus, they should be estimated on a monthly basis, with an allowance or set-aside for those unusual costs.

Board: How Much Will Food Cost?

Even if your student lives on-campus, allowing for food costs is usually a separate line item in the college budget. Most schools offer a variety of meal plans for their on-campus dining establishments.

These can range from a certain number of pre-paid meals to unlimited dining plans.

School meal plans offer the same cost and convenience trade-off as room plans. While it will generally cost more for a student to dine regularly on-campus, it is also a predictable amount. Further, it helps to ensure that the money you give your student for food doesn’t end up funding a spring break road trip.

If your student will be living off-campus, it can be helpful to track their grocery expenses for a few months while they are still living under your roof. It will give you a better idea of how much grocery money you should entrust them with each month.

Get an Estimate of Your Expenses

Most colleges provide a breakdown of estimated expenses on their websites. This information can usually be found under the “Financial Aid” section of their page.

If you are considering an off-campus living arrangement, and do not see an estimate, try giving the university a call.