The Cost of a Degree: Expenses & Considerations Beyond Tuition

With the cost of education increasing, many students say that tuition is one of their top priorities when planning for college. However, it’s important to remember that tuition is only one part of the overall cost of attending a university. In addition to tuition, which covers the costs of your classes, you’ll also be responsible for an assortment of miscellaneous and personal expenses in college, which we’ll discuss a little later in this article. You may also need to purchase textbooks or other course materials, cover the cost of student housing, and pay an assortment of fees. 

These and other expenses can vary significantly from student to student. It depends on factors like what courses you’re taking, whether you participate in Greek life, and, crucially, whether you earn your degree online or in-person — a decision that, as we’ll explore in this article, plays a major role in determining the overall cost of your education. Studying online allows many students to save on expenses like room and board, while conveniently providing extra flexibility for students with children, careers, or both. While online classes aren’t right for everyone, many e-students enjoy these benefits — especially those who prefer to prioritize saving time and money. 

So how do the costs of college break down? We’ll help you compare price tags by looking at the average cost of transportation in college, the average cost of books and supplies for college, and other expenses you may want to consider when choosing which program you’ll apply to. And if you still have questions about paying for college, our friendly admissions team is here to help you understand all of your financial options.

Planning for College Expenses Other Than Tuition 

According to US News, the average cost of college tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year was $35,087 for private schools, $21,184 for out-of-state public schools, and $9,687 for in-state public schools. But remember, “tuition” only refers to cost per unit, course, or credit hour; so besides tuition, what is the cost of attending college? Let’s review some potential expenses you may need to budget for — and how they might compare for online vs. in-person students. 

Textbooks, Course Materials, and Other Equipment or Supplies

All college courses require students to rent or purchase physical or digital textbooks and/or other course materials and equipment, which can vary widely depending on major and subject matter. For example, many courses require students to rent or buy a laptop, particularly in fields such as information technology, engineering, and graphic design. Most universities provide wi-fi access on a student network, whereas online students will need to pay their own internet bill at home. However, online students may qualify for assistance like the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, in addition to various education credits and tax deductions

Other than paying for wi-fi, online students aren’t necessarily required to purchase special or more expensive gear. They may, however, need to have a higher level of technological proficiency due to the long-distance nature of e-learning and digital communication. If you aren’t comfortable handling your own tech support on a routine basis, an on-campus program might be your better option. 

So roughly how much will your textbooks and other course materials cost you? The average amount per student was approximately $1,240 for the 2020-2021 academic year, according to However, whether you study online or on campus, you can save money in this area of your budget by buying used textbooks, using open educational resources (OERs), and/or purchasing digital textbooks instead of hard copies.  

Whether you attend class in your living room or a lecture hall, textbooks and other course materials will likely cost you at least a few hundred dollars per academic year. However, that’s where most of the similarities between online and on-campus budgets end. When it comes to other expense categories, the difference in cost is more significant — which could impact your final decision on which type of program to apply for. Let’s explore a few important examples. 

Transportation, Gas, and Parking 

Unless you decide to pay for room and board or student housing — which can come with substantial costs of its own — you’ll probably need to budget for some form of transportation to and from class. Depending on where you live and study, you may be able to use public transportation, rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, or your own vehicle. If you commute to campus using your own vehicle, you’ll also need to budget for parking, automotive insurance, and gas (or charging stations, if you drive an electric car). According to some research, “The average full-time community college student spends $1,760 per year on transportation.” That adds up to anywhere from $3,520 to $7,040 over the course of a two- to four-year program — not exactly pennies. 

However, if you’re thinking about cutting costs by ditching your car insurance, think again. Many states require drivers to be insured under the law — with expensive penalties for drivers who choose not to comply. Fortunately, there’s an easier, safer, and less expensive way to save money on transportation-related expenses: attending your classes online. 

By choosing an online course or program, you’ll automatically eliminate 100% of your related commute and parking expenses, while gaining back hours of precious time to devote toward your other tasks and goals. Depending on factors like how far you live from campus, whether you have to pay tolls on your route, how much maintenance your vehicle needs, and what sort of mileage your vehicle gets, that could enable you to shave hundreds or even thousands of dollars off of your budget per academic year, while simultaneously creating more flexibility in your schedule. 

Miscellaneous and Personal Expenses 

Most categories of a student budget, such as textbooks and transportation, are easy to define. But what are miscellaneous expenses in college? This category, which is sometimes described as “personal expenses” or “personal miscellaneous expenses,” can include a wide variety of expenses that arise in the course of day-to-day student life. Some examples include, but are not limited to: 

  • Childcare/daycare 
  • Clothing and shoes 
  • Dining out and meal plans 
  • Entertainment 
  • Health, vision, and/or dental insurance 
  • Laundry
  • Personal care, grooming, and hygiene 
  • Snacks and coffee
  • Sorority or fraternity chapter dues 
  • Tech gear like an extra phone or laptop chargers 

There can be huge variations in miscellaneous expenses depending on each student’s habits and lifestyle, making it difficult to accurately predict your average personal expenses in college. However, studying online can help you reduce or eliminate some of these expenses, such as doing your laundry at home instead of taking it to a laundromat. 

It’s also important to point out the savings in time as well as money — a commodity that, for some students, might be even more precious. For example, you may need the added flexibility in your schedule if you work full-time or part-time, and/or if you provide care for a child or family member. As an e-student, you can complete your coursework at an hour and pace that works for you, instead of constantly rushing back to campus in between shifts.  

Still not sure whether an online or traditional program is right for you? Explore the pros and cons of online vs. in-person learning before you apply.

Earn Your Degree Online or On-Campus at National University 

No matter what field of study interests you, you’ll find online and on-campus options at National University, which offers more than 75 accredited degree, credential, and certificate programs. Whether you’re a busy single parent, a Veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, a professional who’s ready for a career change — or all three — NU offers flexible and affordable options for graduates, undergraduates, and transfer students. With our four-week course format and plenty of 100% online options designed for busy adult students, earning your degree has never been more achievable. 

Concerned about the cost of a master’s degree, bachelor’s degree, credential, or certificate? There are a wide range of options available to help you pay for college. We’re here to help you navigate and compare them. Find out whether you qualify for financial aid, military scholarships, academic scholarships, federal student loans, or other forms of assistance by contacting our admissions office today. 

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