The ‘Indirect’ Costs at College Can Involve Nasty Surprises

Students are aware that they will have to buy textbooks, but are often caught off guard when they learn they also must pay for accompanying digital access codes, which allow them to submit homework assignments and tests online. One student told the uAspire researchers that expenses for taking certain lab courses — like a lab coat and goggles — weren’t revealed until after registration for the class was completed. Another cited an unexpected $100 ticket to attend a Broadway play as part of a class.

Even if students plan to live off campus and cook meals for themselves, they may be invited to grab pizza or snacks after class as part of informal study sessions. That may lead them to overspend, so as not to miss out on academic and social connections that are an important part of college. That may seem obvious, but students who are the first in their family to attend college may not have a full understanding of all the costs that college can entail.

“It’s obvious if you’ve done it before,” Professor Kelchen said, “and know what to expect.”

A brief explanation of how estimates are calculated can help, said Brendan Williams, a co-author of the uAspire report. Some colleges, for instance, may include an amount for “transportation,” but not a list of what makes up that total. Students need to know: Does it include a local bus or subway pass? Airline tickets home from school? On-campus parking? With those details, they can compare their situation with the estimated costs.

Transportation costs are especially important for students who commute to campus, the report said.

“Not knowing what’s included is a large issue,” Mr. Williams said. “If they can’t cover transportation, they can’t get to class.”

Justin Draeger, president and chief executive of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said compiling cost estimates was complex because students’ circumstances varied and colleges might use different sources to compile the information. Some colleges may conduct their own surveys, while others use federal statistics or rely on outside vendors to compute estimates.

“It’s hard to write a hard-and-fast rule,” he said, but acknowledged that colleges “can do better.”

This year, in particular, Mr. Draeger said, students may want to budget more than usual for moving expenses, if they move into a dorm but are then required to move out again if cases of coronavirus spike.

Here are some questions and answers about managing indirect college costs:

What if I can’t afford supplies and food while attending college?

If you are worried about paying for basics, contact your school’s financial aid office and explain the situation, Ms. Portillo suggested. Schools may have emergency funds that they can make available to students in need or may work with local transit systems, for instance, to help with commuting costs. “Don’t suffer in the darkness,” she said.

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