The Unexpected Costs of College

With a new life as a college freshman just over the horizon, the cost of higher education can come as a sudden shock. After tuition fees and housing are paid, are new students prepared for the additional costs that college may hold?

"Books were really expensive," says freshman Laura Rysavy. "Especially when they say, 'Yeah, books are expensive but you can sell them back.' I think some of the books I paid $150 for I got, maybe, five or six dollars back on. They're definitely more expensive than anything else there, and they were one of the expensive things that I didn't think would be that bad."

The cost of books can catch new students off guard. Throughout grade school, middle school and high school, books come without charge, unless they are damaged. But in college, things are quite different.

"I lucked out my first semester cause I was taking a bunch of English courses and stuff like that, so most of my books were around $13," says freshman Amanda King.

"But this semester I'm taking two psychology courses, and the price for the used book for Abnormal Psychology is around $99. And that's used."

While students can sell books back to the school when they are finished using them, sell-back prices don't begin to recoup the money spent initially. Where the expenses hide depends on which classes a student chooses to take.

"If you get into art classes, there's not texts, but supplies can eat you alive, depending on how picky the professor is," King says.

"Math courses are pretty bad, too. All the science courses are huge, because they insist on having the most modern publication. So half the used ones you find you can't actually use."

Besides textbook expenses, many other hidden costs lurk in the shadows.

"The one thing that killed me more than anything else this year was the freshman year of college, you will buy, and rent, and go to more movies than you ever have in your life before," Rysavy says.

"No joke. I probably bought close to 40 movies this year, and that doesn't include all the movies we rented. We must have rented three movies a week, and you go to movies, cause it's your biggest form of entertainment, and it's a group activity. And it just killed me. I honestly think that's where half my budget went."

Expenses such as movies fall under a different category than tuition, housing and books, as University of Montana financial aid director Mick Hanson explains.

"There are several types of expenses in college. The first are required expenses, such as tuition and fees, housing, books, etc. The second are expendable fees. Entertainment is an expendable cost."

Not all of the expendable costs mentioned by Hanson were unrelated to school.

"Certain class fees are considered expendable fees. For example, if you're taking a skiing class, you may need to rent equipment."

Even school-sponsored sporting events can house unexpected expenses.

"Most of our sports are covered by tuition and fees," Hanson says. "The only sporting event that costs money are the football games, and those are about $7."

One of the biggest challenges that college presents outside of the classroom is financial responsibility. Often, college freshmen are financially independent for the first time. While some are able to manage, others don't have such an easy time.

"Some people never get over it [financial independence], and then some people adjust very quickly," says sixth year student Alex Rosenleaf.

"It really depends on what you're doing to pay your bills, or paying whatever you need to pay. If you end up going and getting a credit card and getting in trouble with that, then it becomes very difficult to manage your own finances.

"You can avoid the temptation to get a credit card or you get a credit card that has to be paid off at the end of the month and you have to do your finances. So, some people never, never learn how to do it. They end up thousands of dollars in credit debt right now because they got in trouble with credit cards when they were younger."

In the end, it's all a matter of discretion. Some students find giving up the expendable costs more difficult than others. "Many parents bring up children in a very comfortable, very expendable environment," Hanson says.

"They have their own room, sometime their own bathroom, lots of clothes, their own car. Those students often times have difficulty cutting down on the expendable costs in college. They want to live more comfortably."

If students manage to avoid these unexpected expendable costs, than debt can be much easier to dodge.

"Most students aren't prepared or have no idea how long they are going to be paying off debt," Hanson says.

"I have had students come in and ask me for an increase in loan, so they can live more comfortably and expendably. But eight, maybe 10 years later, I've had students return and ask me, 'Why'd you let me borrow so much money?' They're really in debt.

"For every dollar a student doesn't borrow, he or she will have about a dollar and a half after college. Not many kids are prepared for their own financial freedom. Those that are end up with money at the end."