The Hidden Costs of College (Even If You Get a Full Scholarship)

lisa simpson college

So even though I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship to college plus room and board plus a computer, I still worked throughout most of the four years (and summers) that I attended Miami University.

I had a retail job during the summers, and during the school year I made money by accompanying choirs, accompanying theater groups, playing background piano music for university events, and so on. (I was also, briefly, a nude model for an art class, until my mom told me she would pay me not to be a nude model.)

After all, even with a full tuition scholarship plus room and board, college comes with a lot of extra costs. Here were some of mine:

—Textbooks, which ate up hundreds of dollars every semester

—Sheet music and music books for piano lessons

—My black choir dress (our choir offered us the opportunity to buy used dresses from former members, but I believe I bought mine new)

—Tickets for university lectures and performances, many of them required attendance as part of my arts major (yes, we had a student discount, but the costs still added up)

—Dues for clubs and student organizations

—The cost of furnishing a dorm room (my parents paid for a big chunk of my dorm gear, but anything I wanted or needed after that first move-in date was my responsibility)

—The cost of buying half-a-dozen posters at my university’s annual Poster Sale (this was not necessarily a required purchase, but what is a college dorm room without wall-to-wall posters)

—The cost of going over your meal card amount (we had a number of a la carte dining options, and if we grabbed more food than what our meal card had designated was the cost of a meal, we had to pay the extra out of pocket; later, Miami switched to a flat ATM-style meal card, which meant even more worry about whether you had enough dollars on your card to pay for what was on your tray)

—The cost of buying snacks and convenience goods in the college’s convenience store (you could make it through four years of college without buying a single snack, but not without buying replacement toothpaste or Tylenol—and yes, I quickly figured out that it was much cheaper to walk the 20 minutes up the hill to Walmart, and began shopping accordingly)

—The cost of choir tour, department retreats, other off-campus bonding events (I recall skipping the international choir tour because I couldn’t afford to go)

—The cost of having a social life (no explanation needed)

—The cost of enriching yourself above and beyond the college experience (like, we would go into Cincinnati to see plays or visit the art museum)

I felt, even in the midst of all these financial gifts that had been given to me—including the privilege of being able to earn money by playing the piano instead of washing dishes—that I was broke all the time. I worked a lot, and my money ended up going right back into my educational expenses.

I’d see students who’d go shopping with their friends and come back with bags of new clothes (or new video games) and feel jealous, in the way college students are often blind to their own privilege. I was lucky, in a way I did not fully understand at the time, to be able to go through college just broke, instead of broke and in debt.

But even though my day-to-day experience was a checking account with $50 in it, I was helped financially in innumerable ways. I had the scholarship money, I had family who supported me in the major “hidden costs of college” like plane tickets home for Christmas, and I also had $3,000 saved in a CD, which represented my life savings up to that point. Every once in a while I’d say “I want to break my CD to spend the money on this college experience that I think is necessary for my happiness,” and everyone around me would say “DON’T DO IT,” and thankfully, I never did.

What about you?


This story is part of The Billfold’s College Month.



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