The acceptance letters are in, and so are the all-important financial aid offers. But for college-bound students, most of whom must choose a school by this week, the next four years can be full of hidden costs.
While schools map out basic expenses, there are "a variety of fees that aren't necessarily going to be in that cost of attendance figure," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at Edvisors.com, a website about planning and paying for college.
Darian Stevenson, a high school senior in Alton, Illinois, had hoped to go away to college. But the price of room and board discouraged the 18-year-old from leaving home: Despite having her heart set on going to Illinois State University for its journalism program, she'll be commuting to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, a 25-minute drive from her house.
But even that has come along with unexpected strains on her bank account.
"I actually just got a second job because I know I'm going to have to pay for gas and other things just to get to and from school," said Stevenson, the first in her family to go to college. She works at a supermarket and is now waitressing, too. "I'm trying to save money, rather than spend it."
Stevenson is one of 10 high school seniors from across the country that NBC News is following for the next seven months, as they navigate their first semester of college. Like millions of other students, finances weighed heavily when it came to choosing a school.
Learn more about this project at The Freshman Year Experience
The Freshman Year Experience: Meet the students
It's little wonder: The average annual cost for tuition, room and board at a private four-year institution runs students a hefty $42,419, and the class of 2014 inherited the most debt of any graduating class.
To make matters worse, "almost all colleges are increasing their tuitions a little bit each year, and that creeps up over time. A lot of families don't take that into account" when they see the first-year tuition cost, said Deborah Fox, CEO and founder of Fox College Funding, a San Diego-based company that helps students maximize their financial aid.
Those sobering statistics make any extra charges even more painful on cash-strapped students' wallets. But even this late in the game — most colleges and universities require students to claim their spots by May 1 — there are ways to maximize the amount of financial aid you have (or have not) received.
"I would recommend that the student put together a budget so that they know to spread out their spending over time," Kantrowitz said, adding that between course, activity, and transportation fees, there can be up to three or four hundred dollars per month in unanticipated charges.
While the financial aid offers have been set in stone, there are still scholarships whose deadlines haven't passed to which students can apply. Not all are conventional, such as the contest for the best prom outfit made of duct tape, which awards a $10,000 grand prize.
"But you need to know how your college will displace their own financial aid when you win a private scholarship," for example, by potentially reducing your grants, Kantrowitz said.
Students can also work during the summer and rack up savings, earning a little more than $6,000 a year before it affects their financial aid.
Among the most common hidden college costs to be aware of:
- Transportation: Travel fees for a student traveling 3,000 miles for college will vary from a student who's going to school close to home. And once you get to campus, there may be parking fees if you have a car, or public transportation and campus shuttle fees. Gas prices are low — for now — but as with tuition, these costs can increase over time.
- School supplies: Depending on what you study, there may be various add-ons: lab fees for science courses, equipment charges for technology classes, art supply fees for art classes, higher costs for thicker textbooks. Schools may make you pay to use their printers. If you need a new computer for college, Kantrowitz advises holding out until you arrive on campus before you purchase it. "Often times there are special discounts for college students where you can get it through the school's computer store," he said. Then there's dorm decorations and necessities, such as a mini-fridge and perhaps an air conditioner and TV.
- Activity fees: There are charges for participating in athletics and on-campus activities, such as clubs, sororities and fraternities. Plus, "part of the college experience isn't just sitting in classrooms 24/7, but hanging out with friends, eating out, going to movies or other entertainment," Kantrowitz said.
The best way to keep the savings account from getting drained? Students — and their families — should review their finances each of the four years, advised Fox.
"The student can apply for private scholarship funds. Those are available not only for incoming freshmen, but all throughout the four years. Many families don't realize that scholarships are not just for high school seniors," she said. "It will be important for students to build relationships with their department head, the career services office, the financial aid office at the campus they'll be attending to find out about those opportunities."
Financial aid is need-based or merit-based. If families qualify for need-based aid, they need to re-file for it each year.
"They need to be very diligent in making sure that they're refiling the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and any additional forms that need to be filed each year," Fox said, and to budget for any potential increases.
The summer is a perfect time to teach students how to manage a budget, she said.
"They will be making decisions about whether or not they go out, eating off-campus, or maybe going to concerts, or sporting events. All of these things really add up, and it's not that a student shouldn't be able to do them. It's just they need to plan everything out and have a monthly budget that keeps them on track."