This post was featured in the Sept. 9 Carnival of Personal Finance:

Are the realities of college finances starting to sink in for fall semester?

Well Heeled Blog has some thoughts about what it’s like to shift from paycheck budget to student budget:

It’s been two-and-a-half month since my last paycheck, and I have to be honest: it’s been a little difficult making the transition from income-generating young professional to poor graduate student. One day, my friend made a joke that we forget we don’t have an income anymore.

I lived on campus during most of my undergraduate years. But even as a residential student, my lifestyle varied quite a bit from one semester to the next. The actual mix of scholarships and financial aid was different from year to year, as did the availability for me to earn income from part-time and summer jobs, as did the cost of the rooms I had in various dorms, as did the cost of textbooks.

There were two semesters in which I easily juggled the schedules of two jobs in addition to classes, and had plenty of money for spring break and other extras.

There was another semester in which I was so strapped for cash that I could barely pay the basics and had no social life.

So let’s discuss this situation:

When you analyze the “Cost of Attendance” at your respective college, and for your respective demographic (residential, living at home, commuting), you will find some interesting things about what that budget includes and what it does not.

The formula is designed to indicate the cost of basic expenses:

  • Tuition and fees on the full-time student chart will be written to cover somewhere between 12 to 18 credit hours. The reason for some variation on this detail is that while 15 credit hours is a full-time academic schedule, 12 credit hours is full-time for financial aid. Some colleges have a flat fee for the full-time range, others will bill by actual or “billable” credits.
  • Room and board for residential students on the Cost of Attendance chart will typically be a mid-range or lower-priced dorm room with the mid-range or most popular food plan. If you want to live in the on-campus apartments or suites, the Cost of Attendance generally will not be adjusted up. To be fair: on-campus residents who have access to a kitchen may be able to balance out the housing cost via savvy grocery shopping and doing their own cooking.
  • Textbook costs have huge disparities on the Cost of Attendance charts, based on the examples that I found a few weeks ago, and even then your college’s estimate may not be all that accurate. The reasons for the variations include how quickly a class needs updated textbooks and how specialized a particular subject may be. Even with the availability of used textbooks for common core classes, I’m hearing that that $500 to $600 for a full-time semester is a typical book bill for undergrads.
  • Transportation. This detail was a line item on my daughter’s undergraduate residential Cost of Attendance chart. The allowance was enough to pay the gas and turnpike tolls for me to drive to campus for her move-in day and move-out day for each semester. It didn’t cover the cost of my daughter coming home for Thanksgiving, doctor appointments, or other random reasons.
  • Technology fee as that pertains to your school policy. Some colleges bundle a required computer purchase into freshman year tuition. More typically, the technology fee pays for the wireless Internet and access to computer labs on campus. You might get a photocopy / printer allowance in return for this fee, which is a nice perk.
  • Sports and activities fee as that pertains to your school policy. In some cases, this fee allows students to sign up for free or discounted tickets to sporting events. The most common scenario is this provides you with free access to a gym or fitness facility, so it’s a nice perk given the small amount of money involved.

The Cost of Attendance will NOT include:

  • A computer that you would you buy on your own. If a school doesn’t require students to purchase computers, that cost can’t be included in the Cost of Attendance. Do remember that most campuses have computer labs, so the argument can be made that you don’t need to have your own computer as a student.
  • Cell phones, digital cameras, e-readers, flash drives and other technology. These are generally personal items. If a device or an app is required for class, then consider it to be part of your textbook expenses for that term.
  • The cost of car ownership for residential students. The theory is: if you live on campus, you don’t need a car to get to class. It doesn’t matter that you might be in a specific class that requires transportation to clinicals, volunteer service or jobsite visits. The cost of parking passes, gas money, insurance, repairs, car payments, taxi fees, or car rental fees will likely not be reflected in Cost of Attendance.
  • The entire cost of car ownership for commuter students. You may find a cost of transportation line item applicable to non-residential students on the Cost of Attendance chart. But that money won’t go far. Monroe County Community College in Monroe, Mich., is listing only a $1,000 transportation budget for Monroe County students per year, $1,200 for students who live in another county. Think about how much car insurance costs in southeast Michigan. Yeah.
  • Furniture beyond what is provided in your living space. One advantage to living on campus is that a bed, desk and dresser will be provided in a dorm room, and an on-campus suite or apartment has additional items such as a sofa or dining table as appropriate to its setup. But any additional furnishings will be paid for out-of-pocket, such as a futon for the dorm room or a TV.
  • Furniture for off-campus students. The complication for commuter students is that many off-campus apartments are furnished only with major appliances. You are expected to provide basic furniture.
  • Club and activity fees that go beyond a general fund that may support campus organizations with a start-up budget for the year or provide staff to assist student leaders. If you join an organization, the cost of membership, travel opportunities, club shirts and social activities are up to you.
  • Some of your study abroad expenses. If you will earn class credits through your study abroad trip, then tuition, room and board might fall under Cost of Attendance and therefore financial aid and scholarships can be applied to the cost. That is how it worked out when my daughter spent a semester abroad as an undergrad. But many expenses are out of pocket, such as the passport, luggage that meets airline requirements, a camera, and souvenirs.
  • Professional conferences. It was easy for me to attend a journalism conference for very little cost when I was an undergrad, given the fact the conference was held in the same city as my college! But a conference that my daughter attended was in another state. The travel and convention expenses had to be paid for entirely out of her pocket.
  • Internship expenses. It is now common for bachelor-degree students to take at least one internship while in college. The problem is that many of these opportunities are unpaid internships, or better described as “pay to play” because students need to cover their living expenses and perhaps also their tuition credits out of pocket.

There will likely be other expenses, but you get the idea.

Why is the Cost of Attendance so important?

That chart is traditionally one of the key pieces in deciding how much financial aid a student will receive while attending a particular school.

To be fair, many scholarship, grant and loan programs have individual allocation limits that have nothing to do with a student’s Cost of Attendance. But the underlying theory of the Cost of Attendance being a key reference point as you and the financial aid office look for available funding sources remains intact.

How do you make up the difference between what your basic college budget is, and what you’d really like to do when you are a student?

  • Look for discounts whenever you can get them for travel expenses, entertainment and groceries. Most businesses ask for a student ID card or .edu account before granting a college student discount. Other possibilities for discounts include an auto club card, hotel chain card or a military ID. If you buy groceries at a supermarket, sign up for the store’s shopper card program and learn the coupon policy at that store.
  • Consider what services are included with rent when you are apartment shopping. Students who live off campus often are surprised as to how much money it will cost for services they might have taken for granted or received at no charge while living elsewhere. For example, my daughter’s new apartment includes free Internet and free access to a laundry room, which is great. The tradeoff is: she has to pay for cable if she wants to watch TV because her digital antenna can’t pick up any over-the-air channels in the new place.
  • Take up a part-time job. One of the best places to look for work is on or near your campus, as management will be used to arranging work schedules around class schedules. Another plus: much of the work that needs to be done on and close to campus depends on when students are in town and you can still take your vacation when everyone else is gone.
  • Offer to help. You might be able to get a discount on professional conference expenses by volunteering to help staff a booth, serve as a greeter, give a presentation, or assemble registration packets. Also note that many of the fundraising projects that help feed high school club budgets work just as well for college clubs. Someone needs to staff that bake sale table!
  • Look into short-term car rental options. You can find these services now in many college towns and big cities. After you set up an account, you reserve the vehicle for the day and time you need it. This program could save a lot of money for residential students who need a car for errands only a couple times a month.
  • Find out where the thrift shops are. T-shirts and jeans are fine for most classes, But you’ll want to know where to find trendy, formal or business clothes on the cheap. Second-hand stores also are a great place to look for dorm room or apartment furnishings.
  • Don’t take on more expenses than you can afford without a roommate. On campus housing involves a separate contract with each person in that room or apartment. If a student fails to pay his or her housing bill, the college will handle the problem. But if you’ll be sharing an off-campus apartment or house with other people on the basis that everyone pitches in for expenses, you need to have a plan for taking care of rent, electric and other utilities should you get stiffed by a financial deadbeat.


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