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Money Fix: Hidden college costs and how to reduce them

There are many hidden costs on the way

There are many hidden costs on the way to a college degree. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/fizkes

If you are shopping for a college for a 2020 high school grad, you've probably barely recovered from the sticker shock – $40,000 for tuition and fees, on average, at a private university. But brace yourself: unexpected costs await.

Price of admission

College applications, at $50-$100 apiece, can add up fast. And campus visits add more costs to the process. But all those visits may not be necessary. 

“There’s a myth that visiting a school will increase your odds of getting in," said Christopher Rim, CEO of Command Education, a college consulting company in Manhattan. "Many top schools don’t consider tours as part of ‘demonstrated interest.’ ”

Once you're in

Of course, the bills don't stop there. Textbooks, for example, are far more expensive than you probably had imagined. In a recent survey, students said paying for textbooks is their top source of financial stress after tuition. Forty-three percent said they skipped meals in order to afford textbooks, reports Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage in Manhattan.

Then there are mandatory meal plans, extra costs for labs, student organizations and clubs and the gym and on-campus parking charges, among other things.

How to cope

Read the fine print. “Colleges add in health insurance to tuition bills, often $1,000 or more per semester,” says Cheryl Costa, a certified financial planner with Woodside Wealth Management in Framingham, Massachusetts. “That fee can be waived if you prove you have outside coverage, but parents often pay the full amount listed on the bill and don’t read the laundry list of charges.”  

For textbooks, consider renting or buying on the cheap from Chegg.com or get a subscription to an online library of textbooks from Cengage.com.

And understand which costs are qualified education expenses.

“Qualified education expenses can be paid with pretax money from a 529 plan, while non-qualified ones cannot," said Robert Farrington, creator of TheCollegeInvestor.com. "Mandatory fees are typically considered qualified education expenses.”

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