Looking past Financial Aid Sticker shock

After careful planning of your college list, paying close attention to tuition costs and merit scholarship awards, that first glimpse of a financial aid offer can still induce sticker shock on even the most prepared students and their families. This is often due to this price tag including the cost of housing and meal plans, a price factor that is rarely considered in the initial pricing discussions. These days, Room and Board costs can add an unexpected ten thousand dollars, or up to fourteen thousand dollars in some cases, to the final bill.

These days, Room and Board costs can add an unexpected ten thousand dollars, or up to fourteen thousand dollars in some cases, to the final bill. A reasonable in-state tuition cost at a state university can turn a $14,000 college into a $30,000 college at the mere mention of a shared room and breakfast buffet.

Thankfully, there are a few things to note that can reduce that initial stress right away. Colleges will base this Room and Board amount on what the “typical first-time student chooses.” This often means this price is reflecting all the most expensive choices for an incoming freshman.

Why do they do this?

Part of it is marketing.

If families become accustomed to this higher amount, they may not question pricing options further and the college easily wins by selling a premium housing package. The other part of the equation is the desire to take care of nonresident and international students. Many students attending college are far from home for the first time, so choosing a premium dorm room and all the extra “flex dollars” in their meal plan is an easy price to pay for a parent looking to reduce homesickness.

In the eyes of the college, it is better to over-deliver and suggest the best options on campus than market only their lowest price options and risk getting in trouble for misrepresenting their costs.

This is great news for families looking for a better deal.

If you navigate to the Housing website of your intended college, you will find a breakdown of the dorm building costs. This is where you can pull out your financial aid letter once again to determine the type of room that was quoted to you, as a base line of how much you can try to save. You need to first identify if the prices on the website are quoted by semester or by the academic year, to be able to properly add the meal plans for an accurate adjusted quote.

In the dorm building breakdown that every college Housing page should have (which can be difficult to locate, keep looking!), you should see that different buildings are priced according to how many rooms are available, how recently they were renovated and amenities. You should be able to locate a few dorm options that are lower in cost than your financial aid letter quote. You can compare rooms by looking at the layouts provided on the school’s Housing page, visit Youtube for real student’s room tours or even tour these buildings in person if the school is close.

Another option to consider, which is not available on all campuses, is a triple or quad room. This is typically a larger room which would fit more than the traditional two students, but can drastically reduce the rate. At the University of Pittsburgh, choosing the quad option instead of the traditional double room at Holland Hall can drop the fee by almost $1,000 per semester.

Meal plans follow the same “over deliver” method. Typically the most unlimited and comprehensive meal plan is the one quoted, because many students will be far from home. However, every college has other meal plans to consider to better fit within a budget. Some plans limit the availability over the weekend, when students are already busy and eating out with friends.

(Violet W is the College Counselor and Outreach Coordinator at Moonprep.)

Image courtesy of (Image: Parenting for College)

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