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Back to School: The Hidden Costs of Applying to College

Money and graduation capThe cost of college—continuously rising, constantly scrutinized and always in the news—is nothing new. For students enrolling in 2015, the average projected total cost of education (tuition and fees) at a private four-year college is $134,600 and a public four-year college is $39,400. The most expensive four-year colleges (think Ivies and other top-tier universities) are already $272,000, or $68,000 a year. These numbers are enough to make even the most financially prepared parents gasp. But, before you get to actually paying for college, a host of expenses must be taken into account.

SAT or ACT Tests

In recent years, certain schools have moved away from requiring standardized test scores, but the practice is not yet widespread. Odds are, students applying to college will need to take either the SAT, administered by the College Board, or the ACT exam for at least one of the schools to which they apply.

Beginning in March 2016, the SATs will revert back to a high score of 1600 and the essay portion, introduced in 2005, will be optional and scored separately. Students can sign up to take the SAT with the essay for $54.50.  Starting in March students will be able to take the test without the essay portion for $43.

Similarly, students can take the ACT test with essay for $39.50 without the writing portion and $56.50 with the writing portion.

The College Board and ACT will send four free score reports to universities of your choice up to nine days after the test date, meaning within the first nine days of the test date, you can have your scores sent to four schools. If you choose not to have scores sent this way, or need additional scores sent, it will cost $11.25 per score report for the SAT and $12 for the ACT.

Prep Classes and Tutors

Certain students feel confident enough to study for standardized tests on their own, while others choose to enroll in a test prep class to prepare for the SAT or ACT. Other students work with a private tutor to prepare them for exams and college applications. The cost of these services varies greatly, from several hundred dollars for a basic test prep class to several thousand dollars for one-on-one personalized tutoring. In general, the cost of a private tutor varies by location.

At times, applicants and their families choose to enlist the service of an independent college counselor to guide them through the oft confusing process of selecting and applying to colleges. While prices for these services also vary location to location, in a big city you can expect this service to run from $1,000 for a simple review of an application, to nearly $30,000 for the highest level of service. Many of these counselors specialize in helping students aiming for Ivy League and other top-tier schools. There are even counselors who begin offering guidance as early as elementary school for select private schools.

Application Fees

If you are applying to schools that accept the Common Application or Universal Application, registering for an account is free. However, application fees ranging from $25 to $90 per school are required to submit the application plus supplements to participating schools.

School Visits

Prospective students often like to get a feel for the school before they apply. In fact, when I was applying to college, we made an entire family vacation out of visiting colleges in New York State on our way from Long Island to Niagara Falls.

When it came time to make a decision, I chose between one of the five schools I’d seen before I applied and one of the four I’d never laid eyes on. It was a high pressure decision whether to fly out to see it, or sign up sight unseen. It would not have been a small expense for my parents. Ultimately, I went with the school I had already visited, but visiting the previously-unvisited school was something my parents and I hadn’t counted on financially.

For students who need to see and feel things before they can make decisions, it is a good idea to include the cost of a few college visits into the list of anticipated expenses.

Accepted Students Weekend and Orientation

These are two more events that should be calculated when considering the cost of college. Students attending college close to home may not need to worry if they can easily drive to their new college and will not require lodging. However, for students who wish to attend campus events and live some distance from school, budget for travel, lodging and meal expenses.

Applying to college is an exciting time for families, but one that can come with great expense. Preparing in advance for the costs, including the expenses people often don’t think about, can help families move confidently through the process.

Lauren Sternberg, Communications Manager-American Institute of CPAs.

Pile of cash and graduation cap courtesy of Shutterstock.


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