4 Smart Tips to Reduce Expensive College Fees

And you thought tuition was bad enough!

If you don’t want exorbitant college fees to drive you into the poorhouse, make sure you bone up on all the fees and other charges you or your child might face while earning a four-year degree.

U.S. colleges and universities charge students for a seemingly endless list of fees, and these costs can run into the thousands of dollars for many unsuspecting families.

The good news is that you can push back against ever-rising college fees that threaten to blow a hole in your wallet.

Here are four smart tips to reduce pesky, expensive college fees.


Tip #1: Just Say No to “Optional” Fees

Paying for college is, in many ways, much like buying a car. As unsavory as the analogy might seem, it’s actually an apt comparison.

When you go to buy a new vehicle, many auto dealers try to slap on all kinds of “optional” items, fancy extras and accessories. Such “upgrades” can include anything from glass-etching of a vehicle identification number to souped-up car packages featuring leather interior and fancy trim.

Depending on your preferences, these are sometimes “nice to have” car items, but they certainly don’t fall into the category of “need to have.”

The same is true for certain bells and whistles that colleges can creatively push on you. While they may not push them with the same slickness of a car salesman, college officials nonetheless may try to slide their own “optional” fees right past you if you’re not careful.

What kind of fees could you find?

Charges for sports packages and yearbooks are common.

So too are fees to pay for campus newspapers, research projects and renewable energy programs on college campuses, as well as certain room and facility usage fees (such as fitness centers).

Other fees involve entertainment activities (such as tickets to theater productions or discounts for performing arts centers), and charges for student speaker series.

Many campuses in the California state system charge optional fees for towels, locks and lockers. Decline all of those and keep a few extra bucks.

When you see any of these kinds of charges, or another type of fee that is not mandatory, know that you can have those items struck from your student bill if you simply request it.

Tip #2: Avoid Penalty Fees

Another way that colleges stick you with excessive or unnecessary fees is by imposing penalty charges on some students. More often than not, penalty fees are assessed when someone fails to meet a deadline.

So right off the bat, you can save yourself both frustration and money by simply keeping abreast of any and all college deadlines and then meeting those deadlines.

Better yet, try to be early to further reduce your risk of getting hit with a late fee. You never know when someone might lose your paperwork, or some other unforeseen situation occurs that throws into question whether or not you met some deadline.

Keeping copies of all your college records or getting receipts for your transactions, submissions or online registration activities can also help make sure you won’t be penalized unfairly with extra fees in the event of any mishap.

That’s important because most fee waivers typically apply only to regular fees that are assessed to students; not to penalty fees such as late registration, or to special program fees, or course-specific fees.

But even if you get hit with a late fee — say because you didn’t register for classes on time, or you didn’t pay a deposit when required — some schools will retroactively remove those charges if you have a good reason for doing so.

For instance, the University of California, San Diego stipulates that late fees can be removed in two instances, due to:

  • University responsibility, which involves action or inaction by the university that causes the delay in enrollment or fee payment; and
  • Failure to act by student because of a sudden disabling illness or accident.

So it’s certainly not unheard of for late fees to get waived under reasonable circumstances.

Tip #3: Do Some Fee Sleuthing Before Applying

The best time, of course, to avoid fees is before you’re asked to pay them.

Unfortunately, a lot of students and parents are in the dark about college fees, mainly because they haven’t done adequate homework to investigate any potential fees.

It’s not enough to look on a school’s website, for instance, and see what the base tuition rate is or what the collective amount of fees are for a college.

You should have a very good idea of the variety or types of fees a school charges — and most of this information is made public. It’s admittedly not very easy to find. But it is there for those willing to do the necessary online digging.

Did you know that at University of Massachusetts Amherst, the flagship campus in the state’s public school system, fees are actually higher than tuition?

For about a decade, Massachusetts has largely held tight to tuition, perhaps leading some parents to think that college costs aren’t escalating that much. But fees have risen dramatically.

At UMass Amherst, undergraduate fees for 2014-2015 totaled $11,544 for residents, while tuition was just $1,714 for students. Incredibly, this means fees are seven times higher than tuition!

That doesn’t even take into account other “one-time” charges that students at the school incurred. Those fees were another $872.

The same trend holds true at most other state schools in Massachusetts as well.

How do I know this? Because I’ve tracked down their tuition and fee information and read their policies in detail.

You can do the same thing for any college or university you’re considering.

As you search a school’s website, look up commonly used phrases like “approved fees” and/or “breakdown of tuition and fees.”

By scouring UNC Chapel Hill’s website, I found a single critical link, via the finance department, which took me to the following:

All Approved Student Fees
Approved Student Application Fees
Approved Student Debt Service Fees
Approved Student General Fees

Approved Student Miscellaneous Fees
Approved Student Special Fees
Approved Student Activity Fees

Each link takes the reader to a different page that outlines various fees. I’ve saved you the trouble of counting all the myriad fees (I’ve already done it).

There are 24 separate fees that all students at Carolina must pay. The fees are just shy of $2,000. In addition, there are a host of other potential fees that could pop up depending on a student’s grade level, area of study, and other factors.

Should we all have to become sleuths just to hunt down these higher education costs? Honestly, no, we shouldn’t have to do so.

But the reality is that we need to in order to become more informed consumers who are far better prepared for total college costs.

And these aren’t the only fees you can expect. All colleges have numerous other “hidden” fees, as I explain in detail in my book, College Secrets.College Secrets by Lynnette Khalfani-Cox

At least by knowing some of the fees you might be charged, you can fight back against sky-high college fees and keep your family’s budget in tact.

Tip #4: Become a Fee Activist

Once you become aware of all the upfront college fees you might face, you’re better equipped to do something about them. After all, you can’t challenge a fee if you don’t even know it exists.

One way to fight back against “fee mania” at many colleges is to make your voice heard.

Because most public schools are state supported, they’re required to be at least somewhat transparent in their dealings and to provide at least a certain amount of disclosure of fees. Obviously, some schools are far more transparent than others.

Regardless of how open your school might be, you can glean relevant insights just by staying abreast of what happens annually among tuition decision-makers and influencers.

Many public institutions, and private schools too, have a “student fee advisory committee” or a “fee taskforce.” The members of these committees are campus staff and faculty, state education officials, and often students as well, such as a student body treasurer or student body president.

If you feel passionate about keeping tuition and fees down (and why shouldn’t we all feel that way?) you might try going to some committee meetings or even taking a shot at sitting on the committee as a student or public representative.

There is a nationwide need for more strong advocates of affordable higher education.

It’s easy to feel like you have to automatically write a check or whip out a credit card when tuition and fees are due.

That’s why you don’t want to be financially surprised by these charges, no matter whether they’re crazy-sounding fees or fees with nice-sounding names, like the “student success fees” at the 23-campus California State University system.

Do push back on such charges. Let your school know your concerns. And certainly, if you come across questionable fees, there’s no harm in also looking for what loopholes and exemptions may be available to help you avoid those fees.

As it turns out, colleges often treat fee waivers just like they do the multitude of fees they charge: both can be obscured and buried somewhat unless you’re willing to hunt for them.

So if there’s one thing I hope you’ll remember, it’s that just because a fee waiver or exemption hasn’t been well publicized by a school, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.


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