Guide to College Fees
In the last four decades, the cost of college has risen dramatically! According to a Forbes article on college tuition inflation, the average college costs including tuition, fees, and room and board, between 1980 and 2020 increased by 180%, from $10,231 (adjusted for inflation) to $28,775 per academic year. While the skyrocketing cost of a college education is often attributed to the rapid growth in tuition rates, there’s an overlooked factor—the cost of college fees.
Indeed, the total cost of college isn’t limited to the tuition per credit—college fees are also partly to blame for the rising cost of a college degree in the United States today. In this guide to college fees, we will take a closer look at what students can expect to pay for college and answer several questions in the process.
We will strive to provide reliable and relevant information that will empower prospective and current college students to make informed decisions about their choice in a college or university, their financial aid options, and their ability to leverage their college degree.
What Are College Fees?
Basically, college fees refer to the costs that students pay in addition to college tuition and housing costs. While tuition and housing comprise most of college costs, students also pay a collection of fees intended for financing administrative services, campus resources, and student support services, among others.
Note that among prospective college students, the terms “tuition” and “fees” are often used interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two.
On one hand, college tuition refers to the cost of academic instruction and education services offered by higher education institutions. These include the cost of the faculty member’s compensation package, classroom facilities, and instructional materials, among other academic resources. This is considered the primary expense that students pay for attending college and earning academic credit.
College tuition costs are usually charged in two ways:
On a per-credit basis, meaning a college student multiplies the number of credits they are taking with the tuition per credit to calculate the total college tuition. For example, full-time undergraduate students usually register for 15 credits per semester, but their total college tuition will differ depending on the per-credit rate in their colleges or universities.
On average, in-state students at two-year public schools pay $161 per credit while in-state students in four-year, public colleges pay $456 per credit. The per-credit tuition is higher for students in four-year, out-of-state public colleges ($1,177) and even higher for students in four-year, nonprofit private colleges ($1,642).
As such, full-time undergraduate students can pay between $2,415 and $24,630 per semester, on average without financial aid. Note that the specific per-credit tuition will also vary depending on several factors aside from the public or private status of colleges and universities.
Every academic program and major, for example, within the same school may have different per-credit tuition, not to mention that a college student’s residency status will affect their per-credit tuition (i.e., in-state tuition, out-of-state tuition, and reciprocity agreements).
On a flat-rate basis, meaning a college student will be charged a fixed fee for their tuition regardless of the number of credits they are enrolled in for the semester. With the fixed cost or set amount for tuition, students can budget for their college education more easily, take as many courses as possible without added tuition charges, and save money.
Note, nonetheless, that flat-rate tuition typically includes just the tuition cost. Students pay additional fees for housing, campus services, and books, among other fees.
In most colleges and universities with a flat-rate tuition, students must be enrolled full-time to take advantage of flat-rate tuition. Otherwise, students registered for less than the full-time credits, will be charged the per-credit tuition.
Tip: Ask about the specifics of the flat-rate tuition as terms and conditions apply.
On the other hand, college fees are non-tuition, and include additional charges that students pay, usually for non-academic facilities and services. Note that every school applies college fees differently.
Likewise, the array of fees that you will pay can vary depending on whether you are a full-time, part-time, on-campus, or online student. But, you could pay fees for campus facilities like the student center, gym, and computer lab; or for student services like intramural sports, live entertainment, and printing costs. Students may also be responsible for fees for infrastructure like parking lots, athletic fields, and cable; or for administrative functions like enrollment, guidance, transcripts, and more.
With these things in mind, prospective college students and their families must carefully consider the breakdown of tuition and fees at their preferred colleges and universities. With a deeper understanding of tuition and fees, you’re one step closer to understanding the cost of attendance.
How Do Fees Impact the Sticker Price of a College Education?
In the college context, the term “sticker price” refers to the published cost of attending a specific college or university for a certain period, such as a single semester or an academic year. This is an accumulation of the total college costs including tuition and fees, textbooks, and room and board, among other estimated expenses, for a full-time student.
The sticker price is also the gross cost of a college education, meaning state and federal financial aid as well as institutional and external scholarships and grants have yet to be considered. When these tuition-reducing inputs are subtracted from the sticker price, the result is the net price of college education for a specific period.
The sticker price among colleges and universities varies widely although there are general rules of thumb that prospective college students and their families can remember. Again, we come back to the average tuition college students in public and private institutions across the United States can use as a gauge.
In this case, the annual survey conducted by U.S. News & World Report for the 2022-2023 academic year comes in handy, so to speak. For both public and private colleges, the average tuition has increased across the board between the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 academic years. There are many reasons for the increase in average tuition including the effects of inflation, rising administrative costs, and decreased endowment returns and state funding.
In most public colleges and universities, in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition are different. The more affordable in-state tuition is for students who have established residency status in the state where the college or university has its campuses. The rationales behind such comparative affordability are:
- State funding and subsidization: In-state resident students and their families pay taxes and, thus, are entitled to the state subsidy.
- Budget constraints brought on by limited resources: Out-of-state or non-resident students are charged higher tuition rates for revenue generation purposes
- Political and legal considerations: State legislatures and government agencies set the tuition policies including lower tuition rates for resident students that, in turn, promotes education and workforce development in their state and for its citizens
- Competition for limited slots: Public colleges and universities have limited enrollment capacity that can result in an imbalance between available slots and out-of-state students. By charging higher tuition per credit for non-resident students, these public institutions can ensure that more in-state students can access their academic programs.
Note that some states have regional partnerships and/or tuition reciprocity agreements wherein students from participating states pay either in-state tuition or reduced out-of-state tuition. Examples include the Midwest Student Exchange Program (MSEP), New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) Tuition Break, and the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB) Academic Common Market.
Keep in mind, too, that private colleges and universities typically don’t have separate in-state and out-of-state tuition rates for undergraduate students, even for graduate students. The reason: Their operations are funded mainly from tuition and fees, endowments and donations instead of state funding. Harvard University, Brown University and Columbia University are prime examples of this single tuition rate for all undergraduate students.
Going back to the U.S. News & World Report annual survey on average tuition costs, public colleges and universities charged lower tuition for in-state students ($10,423) than for out-of-state students ($22,953). Private schools expectedly charged higher average tuition than public schools—$39,723 and $10,423 respectively.
Going back to the matter of the impact of college fees on the sticker price, college fees obviously have a significant impact. As we previously mentioned, college fees are often overlooked because these are less than the tuition itself, although these itemized fees can add up.
But as with many overlooked things, college fees add up so quickly that it can amount to hundreds, if not a few thousand dollars during the entirety of your college studies! Keep in mind that while a bachelor’s degree is advertised as a four-year endeavor for full-time students, the reality is that most undergraduate students earn their degree in six years. With colleges and universities charging the same amount of fees regardless of part-time or full-time enrollment, these fees really add up over time.
When taken together, tuition and fees comprise between one-fourth and nearly three-fourths of the total cost of attendance. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average in-state tuition and compulsory fees at public four-year institutions comprised 37% of the cost of attendance while it’s 69% at private nonprofit institutions and 54% at private for-profit colleges.
With such a significant impact on the sticker price and cost of attendance, college fees must be factored in when considering your choice in a college or university. You’re well-advised to use a college’s net price calculator so that you’re not in for a shock—or at least, you can plan well in advance for your college costs.
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How can you find out what the college fees cover?
Since every college breaks down its fees differently, it’s best to conduct careful research into college fees and what they cover. The process is simple enough but it requires time, effort, and organizational skills to carry out.
Check the college’s official website
Go directly to the official websites of the colleges and universities on your shortlist for 100% accuracy and completeness of information about the academic programs and their tuition and fees. Most institutions are upfront about their tuition and fees, by providing detailed information about the tuition per credit or flat-rate tuition for the academic year as well as the types of fees.
Note, nonetheless, that there are colleges and universities that don’t provide an itemized breakdown of the fees—these may even be grouped under the term “comprehensive fees.” This isn’t automatically a red flag but being able to decide based on more detailed information is preferred.
Communicate with the Financial Aid Office or Bursar’s Office.
In most colleges and universities, the Bursar’s Office handles the tuition and fees payments. In others, it’s the Financial Aid Office that can provide information about financial aid being applied to tuition and fees.
Tip: Be ready with your questions so that you don’t miss out on the crucial ones. Ask about the specifics of the tuition—part-time or full-time enrollment, in-state and out-of-state tuition, and undergraduate or graduate tuition. Ask about the specifics of the college fees, too, since you may be able to secure a waiver (e.g., application fee) and/or financial aid on specific fees.
What if the college or university isn’t upfront about tuition and fees or withholds information? You may want to rethink your choice. You want as much relevant and reliable information to make an informed decision about your choice in a college, and tuition and fees are a huge part of the decision—unless, of course, money is no object.
Read the college handbook and other informational materials.
Many colleges and universities publish their student handbooks and/or catalogs outlining their academic policies online. The information usually includes tuition and fees, financial aid options, and leaves of absence, among other information that prospective college students will find useful in their decision-making process.
You may be able to print the student handbook and/or catalog or you may be able to request a physical copy from the college.
Tip: Read and understand the information contained in the student handbook because it will be useful in your decision-making process before, during, and after matriculation. Your net price for attending college will likely be affected by the information contained therein.
Review your acceptance materials.
Let’s say you’re accepted to your college of choice. You will likely receive an acceptance packet that may contain more information about the tuition and fees, as well as their coverage. You may also find information about the offices and people to communicate with regarding your financial aid options.
Speak with current students and alumni.
Your family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances may have reliable information and useful insights into the tuition and fees that your preferred colleges and universities charge for current students. Beyond the specific dollar amounts, you can get insights into navigating the financial aid system and its practices in your preferred schools.
You may even get information—or better yet, referrals—to the people who make financial aid work for students with demonstrated need.
It’s also never too early to establish your personal and professional network. Take advantage of opportunities to expand your network with current students and alumni.
Attend campus tours and orientation/information sessions.
Many colleges and universities offer prospective students campus tours, which can be in-person or virtual. These tour will give you the opportunity to ask questions about academic programs, tuition and fees, and campus facilities and amenities, among others. You should consider attending these campus tours, too, not only for the information but also for the enjoyment.
Orientation or information sessions are also an excellent venue for asking questions about tuition and fees, waivers and financial aid options, and transfer credit policies. Prospective college students and their families are usually allowed to ask questions and make clarifications during an open forum.
Tip: Be ready to take notes, perhaps even record the orientation or information session so you can listen to it in the future. You may also want to write down your questions but be sure to conduct research beforehand so your questions aren’t redundant.
Understand your billing statements.
When you’re accepted into a college or university, you will receive a billing statement that outlines what you must pay in tuition and fees, if any. You must carefully review the items and compare them with what you believe you must be charged in tuition and fees.
Most colleges and universities have an itemized breakdown of tuition and fees so it’s easy enough to determine what you’re supposed to pay. If you have questions or concerns about the breakdown of charges, then you should contact the responsible college office and request clarification. Depending on your college, it may be the Registrar’s Office or the Bursar’s Office.
Even with transparency about tuition and fees, there will be times when clarification is necessary or a dispute over fees happens. For this reason, you must keep detailed records of all communications, such as letters, emails and chats, even conversations (i.e., date, time, persons and general overview).
Since the costs of college will affect your overall college experience, you must perform diligent research into the tuition and fees that current students pay. You want to enjoy your college experiences with less financial worry, after all, and the planning starts as early as possible. College planning experts even recommend doing so as early as your junior year in high school!
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How much will college fees usually cost?
College fees vary based on several factors, as mentioned below, but typically cost at least $1,300 for an academic year. Schools with more amenities, stronger reputations, and larger administrative infrastructures will likely charge more in fees. In other words, the cost of your college fees will likely be proportional to the larger cost of attending your college.
Let’s take a brief look at the factors that affect college fees and their specific amounts.Public schools vs. private institutions.
Public colleges and universities typically have lower college fees because of state subsidy and preference for in-state students. But the college fees for out-of-state and international students are likely to be higher in public institutions for these reasons, too.
Private institutions are more likely to charge higher college fees because of their reliance on their own revenue streams, such as student tuition and fees, endowments, and donations, for their operations.In-state vs. Out-of-state tuition
Establishing residency status is strongly recommended for prospective and present college students who want to take advantage of lower college tuition and fees. Resident students also enjoy more discounts on tuition and fees than out-of-state students.
Type of academic program
Many public and private schools have the same college tuition per credit or flat-rate tuition for all of its programs, usually in smaller schools with fewer academic programs. But the norm in larger schools with more academic programs is different tuition and fees structure for every academic program and for the undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Note that certificate and professional programs also have different fee structures.
Academic programs offering healthcare, engineering, and business degrees are more likely to charge higher tuition and fees. The fees are intended to maintain the excellent quality of academic facilities, amenities, and services that these fields of study require to meet higher education standards.
Colleges and universities in urban and metropolitan areas with their high cost of living will likely charge higher tuition and fees than their rural-based counterparts. This may be true even for the online programs offered by urban public and private schools.
Just like most products and services in the general marketplace, the costs of a college education are also subject to the effects of inflation. Prospective college students and their families must then consider future increases in college expenses lest they experience sticker shock.
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What are the different types of college fees?
We want to emphasize that college fees can include both compulsory and optional components. Mandatory college fees typically cover essential academic services, such as faculty instruction, student services, and campus facilities. Optional college fees might include health insurance fees and parking fees, which you can choose to pay or not depending on your need for these services.
Here are the different types of college fees that prospective students can expect.
These are also called administrative fees or enrollment fees. These charges cover the cost of registration for classes and the maintenance of student records.
Orientation fees cost $50 to $300. Your fees may include some designated amount for an orientation weekend or other activities which could include meals, overnight housing, informational materials, university branded paraphernalia, and more. Orientation customs and associated fees will vary by school.
Campus fees typically cost at least $1,000 but may be lower or higher depending on the school. This is usually the most expensive line item included in the list of fees. Campus fees can pay for various resources including student activity centers, fitness facilities, infrastructural maintenance, security, and more.
Courses that require the use of specialized materials and equipment, such as art classes, laboratory courses, and music lessons, may have course fees. The monetary investment in their acquisition, installation, and maintenance of these specialized materials and equipment necessitate these use-specific college fees.
Late Registration Fees
These are student fees imposed on students who registered for courses beyond the specified deadline. The fees are used for the processing of documents and other additional expenses caused by the late registration. (These can be fairly substantial, too, so it’s best to plan your courses ahead of the term’s opening)
Lab fees cost approximately $150. Most students will pay a modest fee for the use of laboratory facilities and other hands-on science resources.
Spirit or Athletic Fees
These fees can vary widely and may depend on the emphasis which each school places on its athletics programs. Students interested in attending schools with competitive national athletics programs should expect their fees to include some funding for athletics activities including stadium maintenance, rally events, coaching salaries, and more.
These college fees are used in the acquisition, installation, and maintenance of technology-related on-campus resources, such as computer laboratories, network infrastructure, and software licenses. Many online programs also have a separate technology fee for online students, and it’s something to consider when you’re planning on earning an online degree.
Student clubs and organizations, student governments, Greek letter societies, and extracurricular activities require money. This comes from the activity fees. (While it may seem ridiculous to pay for activity fees, keep in mind that these are an integral part of a memorable college experience)
Health Services Fees
Many colleges and universities provide students with on-campus health services that the use-specific health services fees cover. The funds are used in the maintenance of health services facilities and services including supplies, equipment, and education services.
Student Services Fees
Student fees support the wide range of student support services that college students enjoy during their time on campus. These include but aren’t limited to writing services, one-on-one tutoring, academic advising, career counseling, and even mental health wellness services.
Students who live in on-campus apartments and dormitories usually pay for room and board fees. If you’re planning to live on campus for convenience purposes, you must consider these fees, too, and compare them with off-campus living and housing expenses.
Colleges and universities may also charge transportation fees for the upkeep of roads and parking lots on campus. Transportation fees can also cover services related to students’ ease of access to campus shuttles or public transportation. Students who bring their cars to campus may also be charged parking fees.
These fees are usually charged during the expected last semester (i.e., graduating students) and cover the costs of diplomas, caps and gowns, and the commencement ceremonies.
Study Abroad Fees
Students who will participate in study-abroad or international immersion programs may be required to pay additional fees for the learning experience.
The term is a catch-all phrase for college fees that may not have been included in the other fees but require funding, nonetheless. Miscellaneous fees can cover ID card replacements, transcript requests, and special events.
How do college fees contribute to the rising college tuition prices?
Growing college fees are contributing to the rising cost of college. According to Business Insider, colleges and universities are spending a greater proportion of revenue than ever before on non-instructional roles, particularly in the area of student services.
Terry Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told Business Insider that services such as academic support, personal counseling, and healthcare have been on the rise. These services are typically added because of student need, and most schools, once they begin to offer them, are very reluctant to take them away.
Once again, this underscores the key point that your college fees will depend on the type of educational experience you seek. If you desire a campus experience with the full range of amenities, services, and recreational opportunities, expect to pay for it.
What are effective ways of dealing with rising tuition and fees?
We understand that with limited resources, navigating the ever-increasing college tuition and fees can be daunting, if not discouraging for those who want to earn a college degree. Fortunately, there are effective ways of earning a college degree and enjoying its benefits—higher income, lower risk of unemployment, and better quality of life and sense of happiness—while keeping its costs down.
Familiarize the tuition and fees that your preferred colleges and universities have before making your decision.
Again, careful research to secure reliable, relevant and up-to-date information is a must.
Plan your college education well in advance of the start of the college admissions process.
You and your family must discuss the financial implications of your college plans, from the tuition and fees to the room and board, books and supplies, and living expenses. You should compare the cost of college between institutions, meaning adopting an open mind in your college choice is a must—if you’re intent on an Ivy League university, for example, you may want to consider the Public Ivies.
Create a SMART budget that includes all your college-related expenses.
Be sure to consider your present and potential income streams since these will influence your ability to complete your college education. You should look into part-time jobs as a college student, if college costs are an issue for you and your family.
Always file for federal student financial aid (FAFSA).
Regardless if you think you’re qualified for financial aid or not—you might just be surprised! Apply for scholarships and other forms of financial aid, too, which will decrease your student loan debt.
Seek financial aid counseling.
Financial aid counseling offers numerous benefits for prospective college students and their families.