The 4 Building Blocks of The College Sticker Price

Sticker price represents the total cost of a year of college and is a combination of four categories of costs. While very few people pay the sticker price it is helpful to know what these costs entail and where to go to learn more information about them. Sticker price is also referred to as sticker shock and it is one of the main factors impacting the college attendance decision. However, as noted before, very very few people pay sticker price because many qualify for some type of grants or scholarships.


  1. Tuition represents the amount of dollars an institution charges per credit hour. Depending on the institutional control (public or private) the institution has varying degrees of control over it. Some public institutions have no control over their tuition while other public ones have full control over it. For privates tuition setting control belongs to the institution and they can adjust it as they see fit. Tuition adjustments, typically increases, occur before the fall semester and an institution’s website is the best way to get a clear picture of the actual cost.

One thing to keep in mind with tuition is that it can vary by program. Specifically, certain programs can be more expensive to run i.e. engineering, nursing, etc. and they can run more expensive than other programs i.e. literature. Again, the institution’s website is the best source for this information.


  1. Fees can follow a similar structure with tuition in that they can be changed every year. Fees are other costs that should be considered when planning for college costs. Fees can be assessed for parking, transportation, athletics, housing, laboratory facilities, etc. In some cases these fees represent a lump sum for the semester while in other cases they represent certain amounts associated with credit hours. Therefore, the higher the number of credit hours one enrolls in the more they will have to pay in fees.

Contingent on the type of control (public or private) the institution has a certain degree of flexibility for setting its fees structures and changing them on a regular basis, sometimes annually or biennially. The best way to learn about fees and fees structures go to the institution’s website. The most up to date information will be available prior to the beginning of the Fall semester.

Same as with tuition, fees can be different for different programs since certain programs have more lab requirements and need more facilities. When planning for college costs look into tuition and fees for the desired program/major and plan accordingly.


  1. Room and Board. Room and board is another cost associated with college costs. Room and board again can get adjusted annually or biennially. There are two scenarios to room and board.

First, a certain portion of the room and board costs can be avoided when the institution is flexible about living arrangements. As in, parents/students have full flexibility in making their own living arrangements, such as renting a room close to the university where the student can live and manage themselves and the finances. This arrangement can under certain circumstances cost less. The vast majority of community colleges may follow this scenario.

Second, certain institutions are not flexible about living arrangements. Consequently, freshman and sometimes sophomores are required to live on campus and utilize the institution’s facilities (dorms & dining). Students living within a certain distance from the institution may be exempt from these requirements. There are several benefits to this approach, but it can be a bit more costly than the first scenario. Some of the benefits of living on campus are full immersion into college life, better retention of students, higher college success rates, better study habits, better safety and security for the students, etc. Universities are more likely to follow this scenario, but since each institution can set their own rules, some will require that students live on campus while others won’t.

Therefore, there are pluses and minuses associated with these scenarios and each one of them has costs associated with it. The best place to learn more about the institution’s living on campus requirements is its website.


  1. Books & Supplies. This is the last category of college costs. While the institution has little control over this category the costs associated with this category can be quite significant. These costs remain pretty steady over time. Unfortunately there is no specific place where you can look to get an idea about these costs and try to plan for them.

Most of the parents that I talked with were typically okay with the rest of the cost categories (1-3), but the books and supplies category was the one that took them by surprise. It is difficult to plan for the books and supplies costs because each course requires different books and these requirements can change from year to year. In my opinion, the best time to get books is after the first class, after the professor specifies which books are required and which ones are not. Syllabi can include both the needed and optional readings, but they may not be identified as such.


All in all, these are the main categories of college costs that comprise the sticker price. Almost everyone is very likely to get some type of discount (grants/scholarships) hence don’t fret about all of these costs, but it is helpful to be aware of them because what is whatever is not covered by grants and scholarships needs to be covered by students and/or parents in the form of direct expenses and/or loans.

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