Four Hidden Costs of College

I still fondly remember my first semester at college.

I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I was attending a reasonably prestigious university far enough away from home that it wasn’t feasible to go back with any regularity. I knew no one at all when I moved into my dorm room.

That first year in particular was full of discoveries. I had read quite a lot about the realities of college life before going, but so many things were unexpected and didn’t quite match what I had discovered from my reading.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the hidden costs. It didn’t take me long to seek out a part-time job because of all of the hidden costs that came along. Here were four that really took me by surprise.

Unexpected Class Expenses
Most professors are sympathetic with the poor college student and will therefore use only one textbook for their class. Others, like a few of my own that shall remain nameless, will have a long list of requirements for the class.

I’ve been in classes with more than ten required books. I’ve been in classes where we had to buy a bunch of lab equipment. I was in one class where a $500 piece of software wasn’t “required,” but if you didn’t have it, you had to spend many, many hours in this one computer lab with limited hours of availability on a remote corner of campus.

The textbooks are expected. Some of the additional expenses are not.

Health Insurance
Health insurance is the last thing most college students are thinking about when they head out the door to school. Eventually, though, you will get sick. Dormitories are breeding grounds for germs and with all of the human interaction going on at colleges, illnesses get passed around.

Many students are lucky enough to be covered by their parents’ health insurance. For those who are not so lucky, there are really two options.

One, you can see if your university provides a health plan. If that’s the case, this is usually the lowest-cost option. Most of the time, if you have a health plan through your school, you gain access to some form of on-campus health service, which will help you with most minor ailments without any charge, and they’ll refer you to other health services as needed. The premiums for this are usually quite low and are often paid directly to the university.

If that doesn’t fit, you can get individual health insurance. Provided you’re in good health, this can also be pretty inexpensive and will usually open up access to off-campus doctors and medical resources. If you go this route, shop around. Most schools will provide you with a list of recommended student health insurance providers.

Make sure your health is covered before you go. The last thing you need during your first finals week is a serious illness that makes you dizzy if you climb out of bed. (I speak from experience here.)

Learning Experiences
If you’re involved at college, you’ll eventually join clubs and organizations that match your passions (and possibly improve your resume). Those clubs might have small membership fees, which aren’t a big deal.

What is a big deal is when those groups lead to learning experiences: trips, activities, and other things that have a big additional cost to the participant.

I found myself in a club that took a trip to South America for volunteer work. Most of the club went. I did not. Another club I was in went on a long road trip over spring break to visit some research stations. I couldn’t afford to go.

Involved students will eventually bump up against the cost of extra learning experiences that go far beyond tuition.

Late Night Food
This was a big unexpected expense for me. Like many college students, I was often up very late doing social activities or finishing up homework. On the weekends, it was not uncommon to stay up until three in the morning and then wake up at ten or eleven in the morning.

Since the food service at my school stopped serving at 6:30 PM, that meant that by midnight or one in the morning, I was getting hungry. I was definitely not alone in this. Many pizza places in the town catered to us.

There were many, many weekend pizzas delivered to various groups on campus. I might go in four ways with someone on a pizza, but that meant $5 was immediately gone. Do that once or twice a weekend over a semester and you’re talking well over $100.

I truly believed food service would cover all of my food needs when I went to school, but it just really didn’t work out that way. There were many times when I was quite hungry and ready to eat when the delivery places had closed up shop.

College is subtly expensive in many different ways. Saving for tuition, room, and board is a good start, but

having some additional funds on hand will really help maximize that experience.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.