By Robyn Tellefsen
When you're going back to school as an adult, you won't have the cushion of your parents' income to help you foot the bill. On the other hand, you also won't have to worry about as many "hidden costs" faced by traditional students, including meal plans, sorority and fraternity fees, and dorm room essentials. But the bills still have a way of adding up. Ask these questions from the get-go to get a better handle on how much college will really cost you.
1. When are required courses available?
If you're budgeting for four years of college, make sure that you'll actually be able to get out in four years. That requires meeting with an academic advisor right away to map out your degree plan. You'll need to check course schedules, because not all required courses are available every semester, and some courses build on each other and cannot be taken out of sequence. Find out how hard it is to get into closed courses, and what options are available to you (e.g., adding a course after the start date; getting a waiver from the department advisor or instructor). If you save your last general education requirement for your last semester and the course is not available, you may be forced to pay tuition and fees for an additional semester.
2. How many of my previous college credits will transfer?
If you're hoping to transfer previous college credits to your new degree program, look for a school that has a transfer agreement with your college. You can rest easy with a transfer agreement – often available between community colleges and four-year state schools – knowing that your hard-earned work will be counted. But beware: Many schools require you to complete a certain number of credits in-house in order to earn a degree. Wherever you go, get specific information about which of your credits will transfer, and get that information in writing. It may take some back and forth with academic advisors, but spending that time now can save you hours of frustration and thousands of dollars later on when you may be forced to repeat credits you already paid for.
3. Are previous textbook editions acceptable?
In 2010-11, the national average for books and supplies at four-year public colleges was $1,137, reports the College Board. That's a significant chunk of change added on top of your tuition bill. One way to cut costs is to purchase the previous edition of a text. Several weeks before a course begins, e-mail the instructor to find out which texts are required and which editions are acceptable. Some instructors will allow previous editions, which you can find online for deep discounts. If the school keeps copies of the text in the library for student use, you may also be able to skirt the issue by photocopying brand new chapters from the current edition and relying on the previous edition for the bulk of the material.
4. Are student fees mandatory?
At many schools, even nontraditional students get slapped with a slew of fees, including registration fees, institutional advancement fees, technology fees, and the ubiquitous student activity fee. It feels like highway robbery, especially if the only campus activity you have in mind is hitting the books. Some schools, like Ohlone College in CA, allow you to waive the student activity fee if you write a letter to the school that answers specific questions. If you're pursuing an online degree, student activity fees may not even factor into the equation – but then, you may get charged a per-credit distance education fee, like the one required at Oregon State University. Ask your school for a complete breakdown of student fees up front, and find out if there's wiggle room on any of the line items.
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