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Tuition vs. Total Cost of Attendance: Understanding Your College Expenses

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How much does it cost to attend a particular college? While you’re browsing admissions websites, researching college rankings, and consulting other sources of college planning information, the figures you find may not always match up, which can be confusing and frustrating.


Sometimes, these differences are minor. College charges change from year to year, for example, and a particular source may simply be using last year’s data. However, when two sources list a college’s cost differently, it may also be because they’re looking at the data in different ways.


One standard way of comparing college costs is by using tuition, or the base amount the college charges you for registering as a student and attending classes. While tuition will likely make up the bulk of your college expenses, there are other significant costs. Looking at the cost of attendance, or the total estimated expense you’ll incur overall during a year at college, can give you a more accurate picture of the financial impact of attending a particular school.


Read on for more information about what the cost of attendance covers, how it’s broken down into billed and unbilled costs, and where to find savings in your college budget.


What’s included in the cost of attendance?

When your college calculates your total cost of attendance, they’re typically trying to take into account all the expenses that an average student will need to accrue in order to attend that college for one year. This estimate brings together a number of different pieces of information about how much things cost at that school, both on and off campus.


On your college’s billing or financial aid website, you’ll usually find not only an average total cost of attendance figure, but also details of what is included in that figure and how the college has reached its estimates. You’ll find a similar breakdown in your financial aid award letter, though that version will be more specifically targeted to your situation — for instance, you might see a single estimate for travel costs based on your location, instead of an average range of costs. (For more information on interpreting your financial aid award letter, check out our post How to Evaluate, Compare, and Leverage Financial Aid.)


Below, you’ll find the major categories that you might see on such a breakdown of a college’s cost of attendance, with descriptions of what these categories typically include:


  • Tuition: the amount you’re charged to officially be considered a student. This covers all aspects of your courses, including use of the campus, access to faculty, and eventually, the ability to receive a degree.
  • Fees: charges on your bill, usually mandatory, that cover specific costs associated with your education. These might include administrative fees, a student activities fee that contributes toward the budget for campus groups and clubs, and others.
  • Room: the amount you pay for housing. If you live on campus, this will most likely be listed on your bill as one lump sum for the semester. You may have housing options at different price points, especially later in your college career.
  • Board: the amount you pay for food. If you’re on a meal plan, you’ll often have several options at different price points, though first-year students may be required to be on a certain plan. It may be combined with housing into a single Room and Board line item.
  • Books and materials: the cost of what you need to complete your courses, including textbooks (which aren’t provided, as they may have been in your high school) as well as office supplies like pens and notebooks. This can vary a great deal depending on your courses, so the college will give you an estimate for an average student. 
  • Travel: the cost of getting between your home and the college for mandatory breaks in which the dorms are closed. Additional travel, for non-mandatory breaks or for fun, is generally not included in this line item.
  • Personal expenses: the estimated amount you’ll spend on all other day-to-day costs, essential and nonessential, including such things such as shampoo, clothing, items for your room, travel for fun, entertainment, and social activities.


Billed and unbilled costs — what do I pay to whom?

As you can see, paying for college is about far more than tuition. In order to figure out how much attending college will actually cost you, you’ll also need to take into consideration all the other expenses you’ll accrue during each year you’ll spend in college. Many college applicants who are used to living with their parents are somewhat surprised to see the explicit details of how much it costs to live for a year.


However, even breaking down your college costs into the budgetary line items we’ve described above doesn’t always paint a clear picture of what your college will ask of you and your family financially. In order to fully map out what you’ll be asked to pay in order to attend college, and how you’ll go about paying those costs, you’ll need to understand another concept — that of billed and unbilled costs.


Billed Costs

Billed costs are those charges that appear on your official bill from the college, which you’ll typically be issued each semester. These charges include tuition, required fees, and room and board if you live and eat on campus. Other charges, such as library fines, may be added to your billing account later on in the semester.


You’ll settle your bill by submitting one overall payment every term directly to the college bursar’s office, which might also be referred to as the “student billing office” or by another name, depending on your school. Your bursar’s office might also allow you to split your semester bill into monthly payments, but either way, you won’t need to submit separate payments for the different items on your bill.


If you receive financial aid, it will typically be applied to your bill before you’re asked to pay it, so you’ll end up paying less than the full amount of billed costs. Your college’s financial aid office will coordinate with the billing office to make sure that your grants and loans are accurately reflected on your bill.


Some billed costs are standard and required of all students. You’ll always be charged tuition, for example, and most colleges have certain mandatory administrative fees. Even if you receive financial aid that offsets your billed costs, you’ll typically still see these figures itemized on your bill and on statements from your financial aid office.


Other billed costs may be more flexible; for instance, you may have multiple choices for room and board plans at different price points, and matters may be further complicated if you live or eat off-campus. However, you should keep in mind that some colleges require first-year students to carry certain housing and dining plans, which will limit your options.

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Unbilled Costs

Compared to billed costs, unbilled costs are, roughly speaking, everything else. In other words, the category of unbilled costs covers everything that is not included on your official bill each semester, such as books and materials, travel, and personal expenses.


The expectation is that you’ll pay for these expenses directly out of pocket as they come up, rather than in a lump sum to the bursar’s office. For instance, when you prepare to travel home for winter break, the college won’t make your travel arrangements; you or your family will plan and pay for your plane tickets or other transportation requirements.


One significant advantage of paying your unbilled costs directly is that you’ll have more flexibility in choosing how to handle them, and potentially in finding ways to cut costs. You can’t personally change how much a college charges for tuition, but you can exercise some control over how much you spend on these secondary expenses.


As with billed costs, covering your unbilled costs has the potential to become more complicated if you receive financial aid. However, generally speaking, financial aid is applied to your billed costs first. For the substantial majority of students, unbilled costs won’t be affected — you and your family will still be expected to pay for them directly.


Unbilled costs can be confusing for some new first-years and their families due to the way they’re listed on documents from the college, such as your financial aid award letter and the cost of attendance estimates shown to prospective students. Many students and parents are unsure about how much money they should pay and to whom.


It’s important to understand that your financial aid letter and other breakdowns of the full cost of attendance that your college may provide are not set in stone, and are not the same as your official bill. Instead, they’re budgetary guidelines, intended to inform you about what to expect and shape your financial plans as you prepare for college.


When it comes to submitting payment to your college, the most important number is the one that you’re explicitly asked to pay when you receive your bill for the semester. With the exception of an enrollment deposit, if your college requires one, you won’t have to send any money to your college until you receive this bill and know exactly how much to pay.


Seeking Out Savings in Your Unbilled Costs

As we mentioned, since unbilled costs are paid directly by the student or their family, they come with the advantage of being more flexible than costs like tuition. This means you potentially have more control over these parts of your budget, giving you the opportunity to economize.


While every student’s needs and resources are a little different, every student can benefit from carefully considering their college costs, practicing good financial management skills, and exploring ways to save.


Here are a few tips to keep in mind while you’re figuring out how to manage the monetary side of getting your education:


  • Consider schools in places with a lower cost of living. This obviously shouldn’t be the only factor in your choice of a college, but it’s a fact that it costs less to live in some places than in others. Big cities are often more expensive; on the other hand, attending a rural school may mean a greater need for your own car.
  • Evaluate your housing options. Some colleges require first-years to live in specific housing, but whether in your first year or later on, you may have access to housing at various price tiers. Living off-campus (if it’s permitted) can be cheaper in certain locations, but can also be a lot more complicated and less convenient. Living with family nearby can be especially affordable, though it has its own pros and cons.
  • Consider changing your meal plan. Cooking for yourself some or all of the time is often more affordable if you have access to adequate kitchen facilities — not a given in college dorms — and plan well. However, some colleges will require you to carry a certain meal plan, and not using the dining halls can also mean missing out on social opportunities.
  • Be aware of costs when choosing your classes and majors. Some courses and subject areas are more expensive than other — textbooks for science classes are notoriously pricey, for example, and supplies for art classes can add up fast. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue a certain subject, but keeping this in mind will help you know what to expect.
  • Get creative when buying books and supplies. Buy used textbooks and check online as well as at your college’s bookstore. Use library copies of your books if you can; often, a professor will place course readings on reserve at the campus library for in-building use. Coordinate with friends to borrow or split the cost of course materials.
  • Look for free or cheap things to do on campus to keep your entertainment expenses down. Colleges are great for this sort of thing — there’s always something happening, and you’ll be astonished at the sheer volume of activities happening on any given day. For more expensive ticketed events on or near campus, such as concerts, students can often get a discount.
  • Economize when traveling to and from school. Your options will depend a lot on your location, but you can always make plans in advance and look for good deals. Staying on campus for Thanksgiving and other short breaks may be an option — it can be lonely, but it does save money.
  • Most of all, develop and practice good financial management skills. Understand your resources and your expenditures. Make a budget and stick to it, and save up for emergencies and major expenses. Resist the urge to overspend due to social pressure or impulse. No matter what financial situation you come from or what socioeconomic stratum you end up in, these positive financial habits will help you for the rest of your life.


For More Information

Getting into a college you love is a great achievement, but the practical questions of how to pay for that college remain pressing for many college applicants and their families. Here at the CollegeVine blog, we have plenty of advice to offer on the financial aspects of college planning.


Check out our Paying for College tag for our full range of posts on this topic, or take a look at these selected posts:



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.