Comparing College Costs

When you and your family are ready to make a college decision, the cost of college could be at the top of your deciding factors. As you begin to look at college costs for your top school choices, realize that comparing college costs is more complex than just looking at the price of college tuition. There are many factors that could increase the cost of college, such as your school’s location, your major, and the distance to your primary residence.

You and your family should construct a “Total Cost of College” schedule for each of the schools you are considering attending. You can use a college cost calculator to guide you through the process. The calculator will prompt you to enter all of the expenses, including many hidden costs you may not be aware of.

Pen and calculator on paper table

Use the tips below to help you construct the estimated expenses for each of your school choices:

  1. Your largest college expense will likely be college tuition. You can do a simple tuition comparison between the schools you wish to attend.
  2. You should receive financial aid award letters from each college to which you were accepted. You’ll want to compare the “bottom line” at each school (the total cost of college minus the financial aid you received). Make sure you look at what types of financial aid you were awarded. Free money, like scholarships and grants, is much better than student loans.
  3. Room and board charges are usually the second most expensive college cost, and they vary widely depending on where you go to school. If you are planning on attending school in a large city, your living expenses will probably be much higher than if you live in a small town. Your school estimates room and board expenses and includes that in a published figure called the “total cost of attendance.” It’s a good exercise to estimate your own room and board figure based on your own situation. Figure out whether you are going to live in a dorm, get an apartment on your own, or with roommates. Then add up all of the related expenses like electricity, internet, cable, etc. If you need help remembering all of the expenses, use a college cost calculator.
  4. Consider how far each college is from your permanent residence, and how much money you will need to spend in travel. If you will need to fly home, look up some sample airfare and multiply that by the number of trips home you will make. Remember, if you live in the dorms you will likely be required to vacate the dorm during long school holiday periods.
  5. Some college majors are more expensive than others. For instance, if you are a law student, you will likely be required to purchase very expensive textbooks. If you are an art or photo major, you will have considerable lab and supply expenses. Make sure you do your research and figure out any additional fees that you might be required to incur for your major.
  6. Don’t forget about all of the little charges like parking fees, recreation center membership, additional food, health insurance (if you aren’t covered by your parents), and fees to join professional organizations that will inevitably come up once you are in college.

Once you have estimated your expenses and input them into the college cost calculator, you can get a real idea of the cost of college at each one of your school choices. Compare your results with your family to determine which school will best fit your financial situation.