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The Real Cost of College: Vast Expansion of ‘Fees’ Means up to $5,000 Extra per Semester

October 17, 2019, 3:00 PM UTC

Room. Board. Did we mention fees?

The cost of college is no longer the stated standard tuition plus housing costs advertised on a school’s website. The end tuition bills have become far more complex than most parents and students expect, incorporating a laundry list of fees—from mental health fees and bus fees to student course fees and lab fees—as well as added costs for special dorms, more generous meal plans, and health insurance. The result is far from a rounding error. All told, such fees can total a staggering $1,500 to $5,000 extra per semester.

“Until you get in there, there’s a shock,” says Fred Amrein, college funding expert and owner of PayForEd.com, a provider of college finance software. “We talk about college in very general sense, but the process has become much more à la carte, and there’s a lack of transparency.”

At schools across the country, from Vassar College in New York and Middlebury College in Vermont to the University of California in Santa Barbara, schools wrestle with how to pay for amenities and student expectations in the ever-competitive world of higher education. This comes amid rising tuition costs—which are three times as high in inflation-adjusted dollars as in 1988—and $1.5 trillion in U.S. student loan debt, according to Loan Hero, which helps people manage and repay student loans.  

Higher education leaders constantly struggle with these issues of affordability, a quality education, revenue, and staying competitive, says Andrew Flagel, a vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Providing true transparency is tricky because so many factors are at play, and they’re hard to work into one single cost calculator, especially when those factors are driven by student choices. Says Flagel: “How [schools] package billing can be strategic.”

That makes it easy to underestimate the real cost of college.

University websites may give one single cost for tuition and room and board. But the award letters and tuition bills often say something else, after all the extras are added.  Mandatory fees might include a $12 career services fee, a $93 bus fee, a $67 mental health fee, or a $28 athletic fee. There are $100-plus course fees and lab fees and various tuition rates depending on your major or college.  

“I compare it to getting a mortgage or buying car,” says Ron Caruthers, a college financial planner in Carlsbad, Calif. “They quote you one price, and if you’ve already committed, you’re not going to turn around and say ‘never mind’ when you see the fees. You’re going to suck it up and pay. It’s a profit center for colleges.”

There’s an expectation for athletic and workout facilities, mental health, special diets, dorm amenities, and services—some of which are driven by votes or lobbying from students themselves. At some institutions the student government oversees student activity fee levels—and it is not unusual for students to lobby for fees to be added for areas of interest, such as sustainability and student media.  Once in place, these may be challenging for an institution to change, says Flagel.

Some state schools are limited in terms of how much they can raise tuition, yet they still need additional revenue for projects such as constructing a new building or adding amenities that improve campus life. Facilities, upkeep, safety, dining halls, and amenities can be expensive, says Kristi Williamson Mitchell, assistant dean of external affairs at UC Berkeley School of Information. “It’s like operating a mini city.”

The fees are typically provided by the college’s bursar’s office, if requested, or listed in various places on a university’s website—but they aren’t always easy to find, says Michelle Gillespy-Goldstein, whose daughter attends the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“The lack of transparency is frustrating,” Gillespy-Goldstein says. “They tell you so many things when they’re recruiting you, but they fail to mention that piece.”

Parents and students may also not plan for a hefty health insurance fee, if they don’t provide proof that their student is covered. Major colleges and universities must adhere to the 2014 Affordable Care Act, requiring that all students have basic health coverage. If a student doesn’t file a waiver, proving outside coverage, then a required $1,500 to $2,500 fee per semester is added for health care.

In addition, when students accept their offers, the choices they make can significantly impact costs, due to associated fees with types of housing, parking, dining, and even coursework and activities. There’s the 18-meal plan or the 15-meal plan and point systems that can be used only across campus at certain restaurants and stores. Those plan costs vary and take into consideration various allergies and diets.

“The demands of students have evolved,” says Flagel. “There are higher expectations that I can get food in different formats at different hours. That I can get my Starbucks fix at any time.”

The level of housing students choose can also rack up costs, whether a suite versus a double with a bathroom down the hall. An honors dorm or a residential academic dorm might cost an extra $800 per semester, though that may be balanced out by such added benefits as small, special classes with students who live in the dorm, special activities, special meals, and more. 

“A lot of people are enraged about these fees, but the fees are absolutely justified and the information is all there,” says UC Berkeley’s Mitchell, who is also a parent of a college student. “College is a big financial commitment. So you need to do your due diligence before you accept your admittance offer.”

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