The Real Cost of College

Mom and dad look at the computer screen and simultaneously exhale a low, long whistle. The last time they had considered the cost of college was 1991, when they were about to graduate. Now their oldest child is about to begin his senior year in high school and, it’s fair to say, the cost of higher education has risen.

“Most parents have some context,” Maranatha Associate Director of Financial Aid Bruce Roth said. “College websites will usually give you a pretty basic idea. The parents who haven’t looked at the websites until the spring of the student’s senior year in high school are the ones who say, ‘Whoa.’ ”

Even the more well-informed parents will say “whoa” when they consider the total yearly cost of attending college—tuition, room and board, fees, books, travel expenses, and personal expenses. The College Board reports the average student at a U.S. private college in 2011-12 paid $38,589.

Maranatha’s students, fortunately, will not pay nearly that much. But parents need to prepare early to avoid a “whoa” moment when their son or daughter begins to seriously consider the cost of college.

Fees

When comparing college costs, or when preparing an estimate for the upcoming semester, don’t stop at room and board. Fees can vary significantly.

Many colleges have a “comprehensive fee,” which covers a variety of student benefits. There are many other fees, however, that could apply to an individual student—43 different fees at Maranatha alone. Required fees at Maranatha and its eight primary competitors for students ranged from $65 to $778 per semester in 2011-12.

“Some institutions have a fee for everything,” Roth said.

Be sure to ask for a fee schedule from whatever college you are considering.

Books

Students can spend a lot or a little on books, based on their academic program and how they obtain the books. Business and Nursing majors will find books to be a significant expense—more than $500 per semester for some Nursing students. Students in other majors who buy all new books can still spend $300 or more.

One alternative is to buy used books online. Another is to rent a textbook from a student who has already completed that class. Those who plan ahead can save themselves the money and stress that accompany starting the class without their books.

Personal Expenses

Each year, Maranatha’s Financial Aid Office must compute an estimate for miscellaneous expenses: clothing, laundry, personal items, and, of course, pizza. It adds up quickly; the estimate for 2012-13 is $2,890.

“One item that really gets people is the non-school-related aspects of life in college,” Maranatha Vice President for Business Affairs Mark Stevens said.

Travel Expenses

Geography will be the major factor in how much a student spends on travel. Students may also travel home more or less frequently. The average Maranatha student will spend $1,070 on travel in 2012-13, according to the Financial Aid Office.

Roth said he encourages parents to utilize online travel sites for comparison shopping and to encourage carpooling and other methods of sharing expenses with fellow students.

Check the Accreditation

When considering the cost of college, make sure you are comparing apples to apples. In Maranatha’s study, the least expensive Christian colleges were also the ones that lack regional accreditation. Graduates of those schools may encounter significant roadblocks when attempting to land a job or gain entry into graduate school.

“We have had accreditation for 20 years,” Stevens noted. “I can’t even remember the last time I heard of a Maranatha graduate who was turned down pursuing a job or an advanced degree because of where they had gone to college.”

The cost of an education doesn’t always equal its value. Be sure to check the accreditation status of the college you are considering. If it doesn’t have regional accreditation, or if the representative tells you that national accreditation is “better,” be skeptical. Consider the value of an education as well as its cost.

Plan Ahead

The best way to combat the true cost of college is to plan ahead.

“Parents just can’t wait until high school to start planning for the college bill,” Stevens said. “If a person starts a 529 plan for their child at a very young age, it can be really effective.”

The 529 savings plans keep pace with inflation and offer tax advantages as well. Most can now be purchased in one state and used in another. Starting early is the key.

There are other keys to winning this financial battle. They include:

  • Send in the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) early—if possible, immediately after filing tax returns. “If students are applying for state grants, they will find the state runs out of money pretty quickly,” Roth said. “The sooner they file the FAFSA, the sooner they find out what aid they qualify for, and the sooner they can make decisions on how they’re going to pay for college.”
  • Begin the search for scholarships during the student’s junior year in high school. Lots of information is available on the Web—but, if a potential scholarship charges an “application fee,” run the other way.
  • Begin applying for off-campus or on-campus employment early.
  • Consider joining the military or becoming an ROTC cadet as a way to help pay for college.
  • Low- and deferred-interest loans are available, but carefully ponder the downside of long-term debt. “One of my disappointments has been how easy it has become for students to borrow money, especially for people who did not prepare ahead of time,” Stevens said.
  • Consider creative solutions. Stevens related the story of a man who projected he would have five children attending college at the same time. One potential solution: a job transfer to the Watertown area, helping the family to at least defray the cost of room and board. “I have, at times, had to encourage out-of-the-box thinking,” Stevens said.