The Basics of College Tuition, Room, and Board

Dorm Room with Storage Bed and Desks

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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.

Inevitably, you will wind up juggling college applications and considering your financing options at the same time.


Tuition is the core of the college bill. It is the fee associated with taking each course and is often calculated per unit. For example, a college may charge $300 per unit for undergraduate courses, which means that a three-unit undergraduate History course will cost $900 for a single semester.

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 semester.

For example, a college may charge $300 per unit but also offer a flat rate of $4,500 per semester for at least 12 but no more than 18 units. A student taking only 12 units is paying $375 per unit, while the student taking a full load pays $250 per unit.


If a student isn't commuting to college from home, living expenses need to be considered.

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.

Living on-campus is usually not the cheapest option, but it does offer the convenience of a single predictable cost. Living off-campus can be filled with unwelcome surprises such as security deposits and rent during summer vacation, not to mention flaky roommates.

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


Even if your student lives on-campus, food costs should be considered separately as a 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 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 regularly on campus, but it is a predictable amount.

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.

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 do not see 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 is filling out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) from the federal government. It 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, and even some lending institutions, to determine your eligibility for additional assistance.