The first step in planning for a college education is to estimate realistically how much your college expenses will be. For the most part, college costs can be separated into two categories: direct and indirect.

Direct college costs vary by institution but are usually listed on their literature and website. Direct costs are generally estimated for the academic year and include:   

  • Tuition: the cost of classes for a full-time student
  • Fees: includes things such as student activities, gym, health clinic, lab, technology, etc.
  • Room: the rent cost to live in a campus residence hall
  • Board: the cost for a meal plan

TIP: Students who are willing/able to commute can eliminate the costs of room and board, although you’ll need to account for transportation and meal costs while on campus. 

Indirect college costs vary by student and location, but it’s fairly safe to assume that expenses will be higher for students in NYC than at a rural campus in the mountains. Typical indirect costs include: 

  • Textbooks: A big ticket item, although many save by buying used books.
  • Supplies: Such as a computer, which many schools now require students to own.
  • Transportation: Costs for student to travel between home and campus, either daily or on breaks.
  • Living expenses: Considered necessities by most are cell phones, internet, cable TV, laundry, mini-fridge…   
  • Health insurance: If not covered by their home family plan, schools may require students to buy a plan that covers them while on campus.
  • Spending money: And of course, you need to figure in money for weekend activities, clothing, gas….


Once you have estimated your direct and indirect costs, you can put together an annual budget to help plan for college expenses.  Keep in mind that time is money; the longer it takes to complete your education, the more it will cost you. Only about one of five students completes college in four years anymore so as you do your budgeting, it’s important to learn what the four year graduation rate is at each college and make that part of your decision of where to go.