The Basics of College Tuition, Room, and Board

Dorm Room with Storage Bed and Desks
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You will inevitably wind up juggling college applications and considering your financing options at the same time. The three major costs of college are tuition, room, and board. Understanding all three will help you plan for college and prepare to apply for any financial aid you need to get you through.

Tuition

Tuition is the core of the college bill. It is the fee associated with taking each course, and it's often calculated per credit. For example, a college may charge $300 per credit for undergraduate courses, which means that a three-credit undergraduate history course will cost $900. The average general education course is three or four credits, and college students typically take between three and five classes per term.

Some colleges and universities provide a flat rate for tuition, which covers a minimum and a maximum number of units per semester. That can work well for a student who is committed to a full schedule of classes each term. For example, a college may charge $300 per credit but also offer a flat rate of $4,500 per term for at least 12 but no more than 18 credits. A student taking only 12 credits is paying $375 per unit, while the student taking a full load pays $250 per unit.

Room

If a student isn't commuting to college from home, living expenses need to be considered. For college students, these costs are referred to as "room."

Many colleges require students to live in campus dormitories during their first year or two. In their junior and senior years, they may have the option of living off-campus. This depends entirely on the college in question. At some schools, it's common for students to spend all four years living on campus, while some students at other schools may never live in student housing.

Living on-campus isn't usually the cheapest option, but it does offer the convenience of a single predictable cost. There's also the convenience of living close to your classes and among your peers. Living off-campus can be filled with unwelcome surprises such as security deposits, rent costs during summer vacation, flaky roommates, traffic-filled commutes to school, or neighbors who aren't keen on living next to college students.

On-campus room fees, if arranged through the college or university, are usually quoted on a quarterly or semester basis. This is a dependable amount that you can plan on spending. If you're arranging for off-campus living, you should set aside some money for unexpected costs, in addition to the monthly rent amount.

Board

You can think of "board" as another way of saying "food budget." Even if you'll live on-campus, food costs should be considered a separate budget item. Most schools offer a variety of meal plans for their on-campus dining hall. These can range from a set number of prepaid meals, to a set number of points that can be used to purchase food items in special stores on campus, to an unlimited dining plan.

School meal plans offer the same cost and convenience trade-off as room plans. It will generally cost more for a student to dine on campus, but it is a predictable amount and a convenient experience.

If you're planning for off-campus board costs, it can be helpful to track grocery expenses for a few months before going off to college. It will give you a better idea of how much grocery money is needed. You should also look up grocery stores near where you'll live. Is it close enough to walk to the store? Will you have a car to drive? Is public transportation a viable option?

Estimating Tuition, Room, and Board

Most college websites provide a breakdown of estimated expenses. This information can usually be found under the college's Financial Aid tab. If you are considering an off-campus living arrangement, and you can't find an estimate, call the university and ask for information.

Getting Student Aid

Unless you're one of the lucky few who can ignore price tags, you're going to need financial aid.

Your first step in the financial aid process is filling out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) from the federal government. FAFSA is the key document that is needed to get federal financial aid in the form of a grant, work-study program, student loan, or scholarship. Many colleges and state governments use the same documentation to determine your eligibility for additional assistance, as do some lending institutions.