Beyond Tuition: How to Manage Other College Costs

College costs continue to rise, and if you’re concerned with how you’re going to pay for it, you’re certainly not alone. Understanding the total cost of college, not just the tuition, and how to manage those costs is important.

College costs include more than just tuition. According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2021, tuition/fees make up 68% of the average cost of a year at a private four-year college and 39% at public four-year in-state schools. But beyond tuition, there are other costs for which to account: room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other expenses. Managing these expenses can be just as fundamental in helping to keep the total cost of college in line with your budget.

Room and Board

The housing component of room and board doesn’t allow for much wiggle room: either live on campus or off-campus. Freshmen are often required to live on-campus but after that it’s easy to do the math to compare which housing option best fits your budget.

Food, on the other hand, is more complicated because there are many flavors of meal plans including, but not limited to:

  • À la carte plans, in which students pay for each item individually
  • “All you can eat” policies, where one price covers all food for the day; although sometimes students can purchase a plan for less than three meals per day
  • Hybrid plans which permit students to eat at both in-school facilities and local restaurants
  • Special plans for sororities and fraternities

No two schools have the exact same system. And college students will buy food elsewhere, that’s a fact. So it’s important for students to keep track of how much they spend beyond their chosen meal plan. Incurring a meal plan expense while frequently not eating on-campus is a waste of money. Realistically speaking, it might be best in this instance to either opt out or buy the least expensive plan possible.

Big box stores, like Costco, offer the flexibility of buying in bulk at significant savings over campus stores, so students can stock up separately on essentials and snacks that they can keep split with friends or easily store in plastic containers or a refrigerator in their dorm room.

And when considering living off campus, students should compare the difference in rent and food costs between campus room and board and off-campus housing options, which encourage students to prepare their own meals, manage their diet, and learn to choose healthy options, all of which can be surprisingly affordable and fun!

Books and Supplies

According to a recent report by the Education Data Initiative (EDI), the average college student spends between $628 and $1,471 annually on textbooks and supplies, an added expense that often results in students going beyond simply choosing not to purchase textbooks by taking fewer classes or even, in extreme cases, skipping meals in order to pay for them. This is not a strategy for academic success.

Lower-cost course material alternatives to traditional expensive hard cover textbooks may be found in e-books or via an evolving distribution platform known as Open Educational Resources, or OER. In addition to renting or buying used books, EDI suggests that students consider reducing expenses by

  • Taking advantage of the $2,000-$2,500 available annually through the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) and Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) programs using IRS Form 8863
  • Searching for free PDFs of required books on any number of online textbook sites
  • Using discounts negotiated by the college or university
  • Buying prior editions, as new editions often cost an average of 12% more (professors often know if material is substantially different from edition to edition)
  • Looking for global or international editions, which are often identical to the U.S. version but sold at a big discount
  • Asking professors if required books are in the college library reserves, another free option

All of these methodologies are go-to avenues for savings over the convenience of the college bookstore and, of course, it’s also possible to recoup book costs by simply selling them back at the end of the semester, either online or through a textbook buy-back event that many colleges hold.

Transportation and travel

Whether your student goes to college in South Carolina or moves to California, there will be travel costs. Average annual transportation costs for college, according to College Board, often exceed $2,000.

One benefit of student travel is that students often know far in advance when they will be traveling, lending some much-needed flexibility for taking advantage of the best deals. Plan ahead for holidays like Thanksgiving and winter break; they’ll save more money by buying tickets in advance rather than scrambling at the last minute. Checking prices within a day or two of desired travel can also help save a bundle as will setting price change alerts.

Once at school, students can investigate bike share programs which have become popular around college campuses, while many cities and schools offer reduced student rates for public transportation options like subways and buses.

Other Costs

  • Social/entertainment. Sporting events, movies, sorority/fraternity dues. College students are going to have fun, but at what cost? It’s important for them to keep an eye on their spending. In addition to taking advantage of the numerous streaming platforms and music apps available to them, students can also look into the kinds of free or reduced-price sports events and other on-campus entertainment offered by many colleges.
  • Medical Insurance. Some colleges build medical insurance costs directly into the overall bill. Be sure to check if this is an expense that you can avoid by continuing to have your student covered under your own medical insurance.
  • Electronics, furniture, and other items. The latest cell phone. Decorations for the dorm room. Cooking and cleaning supplies. That new 4K Smart TV. There’s a difference between a need and a want. Ask current or recent college students what the true “must-haves” are – particularly if you know one attending the school your child is off to. If possible, wait to buy bigger ticket items until a week or two into the semester when they have a better idea of what they’ll truly need.


College costs are more than just what it takes to attend class; there are many expenses that can initially fly under the radar. It may be comforting to know that there are money-saving alternatives worth pursuing. But working out a system with your student about who, how, and when these purchases will be made so that no one is caught unawares seems to be the smart and prudent approach. Have a conversation about expectations so that you are all on the same page. Clear communication will lessen anxiety around money as everyone will know what to expect.

For more college financial planning measures, please visit