College Game Plan

Even financial aid won’t help you cover these college expenses

Key Points
  • "Cost of attendance" doesn't consider the expenses of living off campus, transportation and food.
  • A study finds that a third of colleges and universities have understated their cost of living estimates for students who reside off campus by at least $3,000.
  • Be sure your borrowing projections are aligned to your true need.
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If you think you've snagged just what you need to cover your college costs this fall, think again.

That's because while universities give families an idea of how much it costs to attend school, those estimates can be inaccurate — particularly for students who opt to live off campus.

As many as a third of colleges and universities understate the local cost of living by at least $3,000, researchers found.

Room, board, transportation expenses and other miscellaneous costs add to the actual cost of attendance and can vary sharply from your school's best estimates.

"Colleges estimate the cost for those who live off campus, and that's what the student uses when they decide what to budget for," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.

"For instance, juniors will think of getting a cheaper place that's further away from campus, but they don't think about the cost of commuting," she said.

As a result, students will have to do their own research to arrive at the true cost of attendance and then calculate whether they have enough.

Here are some examples of what schools are getting wrong about costs.

Off-campus affordability

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During the 2016-2017 school year, four-year colleges in the U.S. estimated that a student at a public school residing off-campus and not living with family would spend $9,602 on room and board, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

For private schools, the average cost of room and board was slightly higher at $9,660.

Those estimated expenses weren't all that different from those residing on campus, where students at public and private schools could expect costs of about $10,000.

Do you want to live well at college at the expense of living well after college?
Sara Goldrick-Rab
professor of higher education policy and sociology, Temple University

Take those figures with a grain of salt, experts say.

"It's easy for colleges to estimate incorrectly," said Goldrick-Rab. "The school is just reading local ads for apartments and doing small surveys of students."

For example, colleges don't consider a student's need to have the first and last month of rent when seeking an apartment off campus, she said.

Living expenses

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The estimate for "other expenses," which include things like laundry, transportation and entertainment, was $3,804 for students at a public college living off campus, according to The National Center for Education Statistics, compared with $3,528 for those residing off campus at a private college.

"Schools are generally coming up with a conservative estimate because they don't want students to be oversensitive to price shock," said David Helene, co-founder of Edquity, an app that helps guide college students through the financial planning process.

See below for a chart from Helene, detailing the annual cost of these surprise expenses based on the largest city in each of the 50 states.

Those expenses include transportation, groceries, social activities and personal care.

"If you're aligning your work and borrowing decisions based on aid from the university, there's a possibility you can go through a perfect financial planning exercise and still end up short in the fall," said Helene.

"As you make those borrowing projections, make sure they're aligned to your true need and not just the need the school presents as the average for the student population," he said.

Budget early

Here's some summer homework for students who anticipate going to college in the fall: Take a moment to examine your spending and hash out a budget for the upcoming school year.

"Do you want to live well at college at the expense of living well after college?" asked Goldrick-Rab.

  • Go beyond the school's estimates: Think about the cost of seeing a doctor out-of-network while away at college. Factor in the cost of maintaining your car if you have one. Every cent counts. "Even the estimated cost of books — you should double it to get a sense of what the books cost," said Goldrick-Rab.

  • Seek part-time employment, where possible: "This is another reason why it's so important to have a part-time job while you're in college," said Sophia Bera, a certified financial planner and founder of Gen Y Planning. "If you want to take advantage of participating in extracurricular activities, there are fees that people don't think about."

  • Track your expenses: Life after college will require you to keep a close eye on every dollar that's coming in and going out. Maintain a book in which you detail every single thing you spend money on, said Bera.

"Many people say they can't save $25 or $50 a month, and then they realize they're already spending $25 a month on soda from the vending machine on campus," she said.

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