Key Factors You’re Ignoring When Comparing College Costs

Students Moving Boxes Outside of Dorm on University Campus Hz

College acceptances will soon come rolling in. Families of college-bound students already know how important it is to compare aid packages, look for scholarships and carefully assess loan terms.

But there’s one factor not as many families think about: the cost of living in the cities their children are heading to. It may sound like a minor concern at first, but rent, food, transportation and other day-to-day expenses add up quickly — especially once a student moves off campus.

As Kristan Venegas, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, told personal finance website WalletHub, “Going to school in San Francisco is likely to be a lot more expensive than going to school in a more rural area, like Columbus[, Ohio].”

Lunch Money

Thankfully for prospective students, WalletHub recently ranked 280 college towns on a variety of factors, including cost of living.

The college towns with the lowest cost of living were Memphis, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; Columbus, Ohio; Killeen, Texas; and Augusta, Georgia. Bridgeport, Connecticut; San Jose, California; Santa Clara, California; and Honolulu had the highest cost of living, with Honolulu coming in at twice the cost of Memphis.

Venegas also pointed out another potential cost savings of living in a smaller city: “One of the advantages of living in a smaller town or a ‘college town’ is that there are many services and discounts that are focused primarily on the college student population. You may receive special student discounts at local businesses that are not as widespread in a large urban area.”

Work It

Many students get part-time jobs to help pay tuition or earn spending money. WalletHub looked at how many part-time jobs were available in each college town. State College, Pennsylvania; East Lansing, Michigan; and Oxford, Ohio, stood out, with the most part-time work available.

Another consideration for prospective students (and their hopeful parents) is how easy it may be to find a full-time job after graduation. Oxford, Ohio, again made the top of the list here, followed by Austin, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia.

(Not So) Petty Cash

Other financial considerations you might want to add to your pros-and-cons list include:

  • Distance: How far are your child’s preferred colleges from home? How will he or she get home for breaks? Airfare costs can really add up — make sure your child knows what you can budget for travel and how that might affect how often he can rely on you to do his laundry.
  • Transportation: Is on-campus transportation necessary or can students walk or bike everywhere they need to go? What transportation is provided? Are students allowed to have cars on campus? When? (Rules vary widely as to which students are entitled to parking passes.) Is public transportation available? This may not be as much of an issue for freshmen as it is for older students hoping to work part-time or get internships.
  • Housing: Is on-campus housing available for all four years? If not, rent can vary quite a bit from the cost of on-campus room and board depending on the area around the school. Make sure you plan for changes in housing costs over the years and talk with your child about what he or she can afford, whether it’s an urban penthouse or a railroad flat shared with several friends.
  • Technology: A laptop is a must for college students, as is a cellphone. But what about a Kindle or iPad? Many textbooks are available digitally for purchase or rent through Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes Store and (AMZN), which might be more convenient than purchasing physical textbooks. Also, be aware of any technology requirements a college might have: Some have a list of specifications that students’ laptops must meet, and others have even started requiring students to have an iPad or other tablet. Your student may have some or all of the devices he or she will need for the school of their choice, but if not, these can add a few thousand bucks to your mounting college bill.

Cash Isn’t Always King

While financial factors are crucial considerations, WalletHub’s overall rankings for the best and worst college towns looked at lifestyle factors as well, including crime rates, social outlets like cafes and nightclubs, and number of young people.

The overall winners? Oxford, Ohio; State College, Pennsylvania; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Of course, there’s no single score or ranking that can determine the right school for your child. Costs are only part of the picture, but taking time to consider all the expenses involved can result in big savings over time.

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