If you’re thinking about having a car on campus while earning a degree, you should think long and hard about the financial consequences of that choice. For many students, having a car while attending college is an enormous money-drainer. In fact, it’s downright shocking for most families once they learn exactly how expensive it is to maintain a vehicle in college.
AAA reports that it costs nearly $8,900 annually to own and operate an average-sized sedan that’s driven 15,000 miles a year. If you drive a small car just 10,000 miles annually, your yearly vehicle expenses drop to about $6,000. Even on the low end, that still works out to $500 a month just for the privilege of having a set of wheels at your disposal.
AAA’s figures include operating costs, such as gas, maintenance and tires. The numbers also take into account ownership costs, like depreciation, insurance, license, registration and taxes. If you’re financing a vehicle, realize that your car note comes on top of the $500 in car costs you’ll be shelling out each month.
Parents who want to buy their teens a brand new car as a high school graduation or going-away-to-college gift should keep this financial reality in mind.
So don’t be fooled by that car salesman who tells you that a new $30,000 vehicle will “only” cost you the $300 a month car payment.
“The true cost of vehicle ownership involves more than the sticker price and what you pay at the pump,” says John Nielsen, AAA Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “Before you make any vehicle purchase, it is important to determine ownership and operational costs and compare them to your current and future financial situation.”
To help you figure out your individual driving costs, AAA has a Your Driving Costs brochure that contains a handy worksheet you can fill out using your specific area, driver and vehicle information.
College Parking Fees are Hefty
There’s another huge reason to avoid bring a car to school: Most college campuses charge you steep parking fees for the privilege of getting a parking decal to use your own set of wheels on campus while you’re an undergraduate or graduate student.
Compared to national averages, parking fees at some schools are dirt-cheap. For example, the annual fee to park on campus at Buffalo State University is just $70. That’s way below the price that most schools charge.
As I explained in my book College Secrets, you can generally expect to shell out about $500 to as much as $1,000 for yearly parking on many college and university campuses. Most schools charge this as an “overnight parking fee”; separate, reduced fees are usually billed as a “commuter fee.”
A parking “permit” fee may or may not be imposed separately — in addition to the overnight parking or commuter charges. I suppose that’s why the average college in the United States generates roughly $635 per space and about $4 million to $5 million in total annual parking fee revenues, according to recent studies from the National Parking Association.
In 2014, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles implemented a somewhat baffling policy under which it automatically began charging car parking fees of $290 per semester to all students taking seven or more semester hours, regardless of whether a student has a vehicle or not.
Students without cars have to “opt out” of this cost and request that it be stricken from their billing statements. However, if students don’t opt out in time by submitting an online form, they “will be charged $335 without the option for refund,” per the school’s website and a letter to students from the school’s Department of Parking and Transportation.
Other car-related fees that some schools charge are “vehicle boot fees” and “tow fees” — each usually around $50 to $150 — if you get parking tickets on campus and don’t pay them. And violations for parking illegally on some campuses can run as high as $300.
Good Alternatives to Having a Car on Campus
Fortunately, if you decide to forgo having a car while you’re at college, you have lots of good transportation options during your college years.
Option#1: You can take public transportation. Most municipalities and schools give discounts to students buying local transportation passes.
Option #2: On very large campuses that are spread out, like Emory University or UC Berkeley, school-provided transportation is free or included as part of your student fees.
Option #3: You can also use Zipcar and UhaulCarShare, two popular car-sharing services that serve the college market. With rates as low as $5 an hour plus mileage, if you only need a car a couple times a month, getting a car from either one of these services will run you just $40 to $50 or so monthly.
Option #4: You can also hitch a ride with friends if you and your classmates just need to go to a local store, grab a bite at a nearby restaurant or venture out further away from campus for some reason.
Option #5: Students can also use bicycles instead of cars (more on this below).
From a financial perspective, all of these alternatives are far better than having your own car at college because you won’t have the added cost of insurance, maintenance and constantly fueling up at the pump. Dumping your own car also means you won’t have to deal with the hassles, and added expense, of parking on campus.
The Parking Crisis on College Campuses
U.S. News and World Report recently created a list of national universities with the most cars on campus. At these institutions, many of which are commuter schools, 90% or more of the student body use a vehicle to get to school.
Out of the 178 universities that reported the car-specific data to U.S. News, nearly half (48%) of students had cars on campus. Some schools, however, had no student cars on campus. Among them: Georgetown University, Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Because so many students want to take their cars to college, it’s created something of a parking crisis at many schools. So be sure to ask campus officials about any programs or initiatives they have to help students without cars. Such programs are becoming more and more common.
For instance, the University of New England provides free bikes to students who leave their cars at home. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 22% of students bike to school in good weather, thanks to the campus installing more bike racks, subsidizing membership in the city’s bike-share program, and making investments in on-campus bike repair services.
Encouraging bicycling is one major way that schools nationwide are trying to decrease students’ reliance on their vehicles. Other efforts are afoot too.
According to a recent U.S. PIRG study, colleges and universities are also increasingly supporting:
- The development of new walking paths
- Fare-free and discounted access to transit services
- Ride-sharing initiatives, such as carpooling
- Car-sharing programs
- Distance learning and online resources
If none of these strategies work for you, and you absolutely must have a car — or you’re about to buy one before heading off to college —opt for a fuel-efficient vehicle, not a gas-guzzler. It will dramatically cut your gas costs.
You should also ask your auto insurance company about any discounts you may qualify for if your vehicle is mostly parked on campus and only driven a low number of miles.
But hopefully, by seeing the crazy number of car fees you could be assessed, this makes you realize that having a car in college is often far more trouble and expense than it’s worth.
You can simply nix car expenses from your budget — and avoid all these worrisome fees — by doing without a car on campus and using alternatives like public transportation, carpooling or low-cost commercial ride-sharing services.