Understanding College Cost

April 8, 2022
A post by Stephanie Dupaul, Vice President for Enrollment Management

High school students spend hours watching TikTok and scrolling through Instagram. They travel to visit campuses and do extensive research on athletics, study abroad, and social life. They know the mascot, campus traditions, and the best meals in the dining hall – but do they know the real cost of the colleges on their lists?

As admission letters roll in, cost is about to become a very real factor in decision making. Here are a few things for families to consider when thinking about college costs.

1. The actual price may be lower than you think.
For most students, the price listed in the cost of attendance isn’t what they will pay. At Richmond, for example, nearly 60% of students receive some combination of need-based, merit, and/or athletic aid. That means that majority of our students pay less than the published price.

2. The actual price may be higher than you think!
Schools report tuition, fees, room, board, books, and personal expenses as part of their “cost of attendance.” That’s the price, right? Usually not. Many students pay less because of aid, but sometimes the price is actually higher because some schools have additional fees – some of which are mandatory – that are not in the cost of attendance.

These additional fees may include mandatory orientation fees, lab course fees, technology fees, athletic fees, activity fees, and health center fees. Some schools charge higher tuition for high-demand majors, or add fees for classes that have field trips or travel as a course requirement.

While Richmond doesn’t have these additional fees – we don’t even charge students to use the laundry facilities on campus – at other schools these fees can add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the student’s bill. Families should look at each school’s University Bursar web page for their fee schedule, and carefully review the list of fees to make sure your cost comparisons include a realistic awareness of those extras.

3. Most schools do not meet full need, and some give scholarships that decrease in value over time.
Some schools provide merit scholarships in a fixed annual amount. That’s great for the first year. But as costs increase, that $10,000 scholarship covers a bit less of the cost of attendance each year. This is why most Richmond merit scholarships are based on a percentage of tuition, so that as our tuition increases, the merit scholarship increases proportionally.

Unlike most schools, we are also committed to meeting full need each year, so if prices go up or family circumstances change, we can adjust aid. Unfortunately, most schools do not have the financial resources to meet full need. If cost is an issue, students should focus on schools that meet full demonstrated financial need. Meeting full need supports student retention and success!

4. There are millions in unclaimed scholarships.
Yes, there are unclaimed scholarships out there. But most of them are unclaimed because they are incredibly specific. A student’s best bet when seeking scholarships is to use federal and non-profit search engines, like studentaid.gov and bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/scholarship-search, to search for scholarships based on personal interests and background. Be careful when searching for scholarships – there are some smart identity theft scammers out there who put up fake scholarship applications as a way to collect personal data and even to build essay databases! Stick with the known and trusted sources.

When it comes to scholarships that are part of a school’s endowment, schools will often award them as part of the financial aid review process by matching application information with the scholarship profile, eliminating extra work for the student. Most of our scholarships, for example, specify a particular geographic region or academic area, which we can easily identify and assign to our admitted students. But even we have a handful that are hard to award. Our admission staff know to look out for certain backgrounds – and if you happen to know one of the 24 Hungarian Reformed Church of America pastors, please let them know that the University of Richmond may have a scholarship!

5. Help yourself – to loans, work/study, and summer earnings.
Through loans and student employment, students participate in funding part of their education through current earnings while in college (student employment and summer work) and future earning (loans taken out now, and repaid starting 6 months after leaving college).

Some schools have a summer earnings expectation, which basically means they expect students to work and save money over the summer. That’s great, in principle, but that means that there are other things the student won’t be able to do in the summer. At Richmond, we do not have a summer earnings expectation. We also provide summer funding through the Richmond Guarantee – our guarantee of up to $5,000 to each student to fund one summer doing research or working at an unpaid or underpaid internship. We expect our students to be engaged in the summer, but don’t want to limit their opportunities.

6. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.
Finally, don’t wait until the payment due to date to create a plan. Talk to the Office of Financial Aid, get an estimate of the bill, and consider the best way to balance payments. Many schools offer installment plans so that payments can be spread out over a semester instead of being due all at once before the semester begins. Spreading it out may be a good way to ease into tuition payments.