Finances:Introduction to College Financial Topics

Family Modules

Module 6 Part 1



Objective: The student will identify the major costs involved in attending college and discuss the benefits of this financial investment.

This lesson is designed to help you and your parents think about and discuss the many financial options of investing in college.

Estimated time 30-40 minutes

Materials included:

Materials needed:

Curriculum Link:

This section corresponds with Module 6 Lesson 1 in the STEPP Classroom Transition resources.

Parents Chime In

Have your student guess the annual cost of college attendance. Remind him or her to consider the major expenses of tuition, residence and meal plans.

Were the guesses close? Was your student surprised about how expensive a college education can be?

Learn About It

Watch this video with your parent or guardian to learn more about the costs associated with college. [Transcript]

Introduction to College Financial Topics

This example gives a condensed version of the fee schedule for East Carolina University for the 2016-2017 academic year. (Source:

Sample Public University Expenses - Numbers reflect fall and spring semester costs
Full-Time Tuition $4,365 (in state)
$20,323 (out of state)
Campus Living Fees $5,210
Campus Meal Plans (average)* $4,017
** Other fees $2,581
TOTAL $16,173 to $32,131 per academic year if living on campus

These figures are based on the 2015-2016 school year. See college websites for updated figures.

As you can see here, at a major public university in NC, the total for one year of tuition, housing, meal plan, and student fees is approximately $12,000 for a NC resident and almost $20,000 for an out-of-state student.

Costs differ at each college and university.

Below are approximate costs of attendance for several other colleges in NC for comparison purposes. This information was found on each college’s website. Totals include tuition, fees, and room and board for 1 academic year. Please note that these are estimates and should not be relied upon as definite or current information.

Public 4-year colleges

  • East Carolina University: $8,946 in-state, $22,904 out-of-state
  • NC State University: $8,880 in-state, $26,399 out-of-state
  • UNC-Chapel Hill: $8,834 in-state, $33,916 out-of-state
  • Western Carolina University: $9,249 in-state, $19,642 out-of-state

Private 4-year colleges (Tution/Fees only)

  • Davidson College: $48,5769
  • Wake Forest University: $44,220
  • Greensboro College: $28,000

Community Colleges

  • Alamance Community College: $927 in-state, $3,231 out-of-state (tuition only—no room and board for community colleges)
  • Durham Technical Community College - $979 in-state, $4288 out-of-state (tuition only—no room and board for community colleges).


Tuition refers to the direct-billed cost of the courses that a student takes at a college or university. The cost of tuition varies drastically based on several factors.

The type of institution attended

  • In general, public colleges are much more affordable than private colleges. (However, some private colleges may offer better financial aid packages, so sometimes it can balance out.)
  • In general, 4-year colleges or universities are more expensive than 2-year colleges, junior colleges, community colleges, or technical colleges.

The student’s residency status

  • Tuition rates at most schools are based on whether the student is an in-state or out-of-state resident.
  • Being a state resident for tuition purposes is not the same as simply living in the state. Students whose permanent home address has not been in the same state as the college/university for at least a year will likely not be considered residents. In addition, there is generally a review process for out-of-state residents who establish a permanent residence in the state while they’re in college and want to be considered for in-state tuition. Students should find out what the requirements are for their school and state.
  • In addition, although public schools almost always distinguish between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates, private schools may or may not. Some private schools have one tuition rate for all students, regardless of residence.

The number of credit hours the student is taking that semester

  • In general, colleges establish tuition rates on a per-credit-hour basis. For example, if the cost for one credit hour is $200, then the tuition for a 3-credit-hour course is $200 x 3 = $600.
  • Students who attend part time will most likely have their tuition figured on this basis.
  • However, some schools bill tuition in “blocks” of credit hours. For example, a school might set one tuition rate for all students taking 3-5 credit hours, another for students taking 6-8 credit hours, and another for students taking 9-11 credit hours. Thus, a student taking a 3-hour lecture course and a 1-hour lab course may pay the same tuition as a student only taking the 3-hour lecture course.

Finally, many schools use a per-hour rate for part-time students, but have a flat tuition rate for all full-time students. In effect, this is the same as billing for a block of credit hours (like the prior example), except that the block includes all full-time students. For example, at ECU, tuition is billed as follows (figures are for in-state residents for one semester, from spring 2013):

  • Part-time 1-5 credit hours = $469.75
  • Part-time 6-8 credit hours = $939.50
  • Part-time 9-11 credit hours = $1,409.25
  • Full-time 12+ credit hours = $1879.00

Under this system, a student can get more “bang for their buck” by taking more than the minimum full-time load of classes.

Room and Board

Meal plans are pre-paid plans that let you eat at campus dining locations without paying individual meal prices. Many colleges make meal plans mandatory for students living on campus.

Find out about the options offered when signing up for a meal plan. They’re set up differently at each school. For example, each of ECU’s meal plans comes with a combination of unlimited dining hall access, “Pirate Meals,” and “Pirate Bucks.” This means that a student pays for a meal plan at the beginning of the semester and then can eat at the dining hall anytime throughout that semester without paying anything extra. In addition, they also get a certain number of “Pirate Meals” that they can redeem at campus dining locations like Chick-fil-A and Subway for a specific combo meal. Finally, they get a specific dollar amount of “Pirate Bucks” that they can spend at any of the campus dining locations on snacks, drinks, or meals that aren’t covered by “Pirate Meals.”

Your college may have several options for a meal plan, and you should look at them carefully and consider your own needs and preferences in determining which will be the best option for you. For example, if you prefer to eat “3 square meals” every day, the most comprehensive plan will probably be best for you. But if you’re more of a “cereal for breakfast and sandwich for lunch” type of person, you probably won’t end up eating as many meals each week in the dining hall. Just remember that if you spend less on a meal plan, you’ll probably still need to budget extra money for meals you’ll be getting from other sources.


Fees are the charges assessed for various services and programs the university provides. One of the great perks of being a college student is that many universities offer lots of “free” amenities, such as special events, organizations, recreation and athletic facilities, healthcare, technology, and others. However in order to fund these things, fees are collected from each student who is enrolled. Even though students pay for these things indirectly, the cost per student is still usually much less than it would be if students paid for the amenities directly.

Some fees at your college will likely be mandatory and collected from every student. Others may only apply to certain students. Here are a few relatively common fees charged by many colleges:

  • Student activity fee: funds student organizations, events, clubs, and programs, and the facilities needed to run those things
  • Athletic fee: funds athletic programs and facilities
  • Health service fee: funds the health care center on campus and related costs
  • Technology fee: funds computer labs and specialized technology and equipment used across campus
  • Recreation fee: funds recreation centers and other related activities and events
  • Special course fees: these are only assessed to students taking certain courses. For example, a student taking a lab course might incur a Lab Fee for materials and equipment. A student taking a scuba diving course might pay a course fee that goes toward equipment, pool maintenance, or hiring a lifeguard.

Fees vary drastically from one college to another, so it’s worth finding out about what to expect from your college before enrolling.

Parents Chime In

Have your student research financial information for the top two colleges they hope to attend and complete the “How Much Does College Cost?” worksheet at the end of this lesson.

Monetary Benefits

Monetary benefits are usually the first benefits that people think of when considering why college is worth the investment. Although college can cost a lot of money, the average college graduate earns about $1 million more than the average high school graduate over the course of a lifetime. Even for a student who paid $100,000 for a college education, that’s still 10x the return on that investment.

In addition, college graduates are less likely to be unemployed, they get better employment benefits (such as health insurance, life insurance, and retirement accounts), and they have more money in savings.

Non-Monetary Benefits

Research has shown that there are significant benefits to a college education beyond the financial ones. These include:

  • a higher quality of life
  • more leisure activities (possibly implying that they may also have more time to spend on leisure activities and/or more money to spend on leisure activities)
  • better health and lower mortality rates in each age bracket (which also applies to the children of people who went to college)
  • higher social status
  • more mobility (both personal and professional), and
  • better consumer decision making.

In addition, college exposes people to a wider variety of situations and information, which leads to college graduates on average being more open-minded, more knowledgeable about the world, more rational, more cultured, and more optimistic about their personal progress.

Parents Chime In

Discuss with your student ideas about why college may be worth the significant investment of time and money that it requires. Ask him or her to think of both financial and non-financial reasons why it’s worthwhile.

Objective Check

Have you accomplished today's objective?

Objective: The student will identify the major costs involved in attending college and discuss the benefits of this financial investment.

If so, congratulations!

If you don’t feel like you have researched enough about the financial options involved in the investment of college, check out to learn more.

Digging Deeper


Work with your parents to select two potential jobs, one of which requires at least a college degree, and another which requires only a high school education. Use web resources to research the two jobs and then complete the “Job Comparison” worksheet.