University of Virginia

What does college cost?

Excerpted from our February newsletter – if you would like to sign up for free, please do so here


You might think a word as simple as “cost” would have a simple definition. It doesn’t when it comes to college.

 What does college cost?

 There are two ways to answer this question. The first is to look at the annual, published sticker price. The second is to examine Net Price, the amount that a college will cost your family after deducting any grants and scholarships.

 The current cost of the freshman year at UVA for an in-state student is $25,354. That number is the 2012-13 Cost of Attendance (COA) for UVA. It is the sticker price and it includes the following components:

Tuition and Fees


Room and Board


Books and Supplies






Total COA


You’ll never see an invoice for $25,354 and in fact you might pay more or less for your first year of college. Let’s consider the items one at a time.

Tuition and Fees: This is paid directly to the college. You do get an invoice for this, on a semester basis (actually, your teenager will get the invoice – watch their face when you ask them how they are planning to pay for it!). We’ve written before about tuition payment plans and what a help they can be in making the payment of Tuition and Fees more manageable.

Some schools charge extra fees or tuition for special programs. Known as differential tuition, these programs are becoming more common, especially with engineering and business majors. Some science programs have extra lab fees as well. Your actual invoice might vary from the amount included in the COA, but for most students it will be similar.

Room and Board: Now things start to get tricky. Many larger schools have a number of housing options. Single rooms vs. doubles vs. suites and some dorms cost more than others. What that means is that there is no single cost for housing. Colleges handle this by using an average or typical amount in the COA.

If you are living off-campus, your costs can be significantly different than the amount in the COA. You could be paying rent to a landlord, a student’s parents, or a management company. Tip: for upperclassmen, learning to pay monthly rent can be a great financial literacy step in a relatively safe environment.

Meal plans vary widely too. Off-campus students might decide to not participate in a meal plan at all and cook their own food (read: eat at Moe’s). How much that costs is anyone’s guess, and you’ll be wise to establish a food budget in advance. Most schools require freshmen to select a meal plan.

Finally, Room and Board costs can be exorbitant at some schools, over $14,000 per year. Some accommodations are nothing short of luxurious. Know what you will be paying and what you will be paying for.

Books and Supplies: With all the different courses and options for books, there is no way the school knows what your student’s cost will be, so they throw a number out there and move on. Our tips on saving money on book purchases are a great place to start. The biggest mistake you can make is to wait until you get to school in the fall to buy your books at the college bookstore. Ouch!

Transportation: Gas money or air fare? Where are you going to? How many trips per year? This number is another wild guess and you’ll see lots of variation from school to school. UVA’s number is low and reflects the idea that most students come from in-state. (But the same is true for James Madison students, and JMU uses $2,112 for travel.)

Personal: Who knows what this includes. UVA adds a footnote that it does include loan fees for student loans, if you get any. The rest of the category is for college student spending money: entertainment, pizza, Target, this list goes on and on. Again, you’ll see variety across schools. UVA uses $2,000 but Virginia Tech uses $1,200. College students don’t spend 45% more at UVA than Tech. The numbers are little more than a guess.

Add each of these numbers up and you get the Cost of Attendance, but as you can see by now, the number is largely random and very subjective. Understanding the numbers is the first step in figuring out what college will cost.

For families with juniors who are putting together college lists, our free Student Research Sheet can be a great help in organizing the information. We include a section on Cost, where you itemize the components of the COA for each school. If you would like a copy, please drop us a note.

As you can see, your actual out-of-pocket costs will vary based on a number of factors. Many families benefit from putting together a personal cash flow plan for college that takes into account realistic spending and funding amounts. Let us know if we can help you with your plan.