How Much Does it ACTUALLY Cost to go to College in the US? A Guide for International Students

This is especially true if you are trying to calculate costs of different colleges and universities all around the world.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • Snapshot of the most common costs of higher education

  • Classes, food and a bed: “direct” costs

  • Everything else: the “indirect” or hidden cost

  • Cost of living around the world & why that’s important

  • A budget template

  • Highly recommended resources for further reading

What do you picture when you close your eyes and envision paying for college? It is easy to think ahead and see the tuition you’ll pay and the dorm/apartment you’ll inhabit. And then suddenly you’ll get your first student bill, or your financial aid award letter, and think, “What is this activity fee?” or “How will I get there?” or “Wait, the canteen doesn’t serve meals over the holiday break? What will I eat??”

One of the most common mistakes students make when applying to college is to not consider all the hidden costs that make up the total Cost of Attendance. The good news? We dug through all those costs so you don’t have to! Let’s start with a snapshot:

Tuition Payments

The fees charged for your courses, multiplied by the number of years you will study

School Fees

Fees covering things like school activities and campus services (campus shuttles, IT, wellness centers)

Taxes

Students may pay annual taxes on things like part-time job income and the scholarship you get to help pay for your education

Housing 

Rent for your dormitory or apartment and housing expenses like utilities and repairs

Food

A meal plan will be the price of eating a certain amount of food in school-affiliated dining facilities like canteens; Colleges without a meal plan will require you to budget for cooking/purchasing your daily meals

School Supplies & Technology 

Everything to support your studies: textbooks, notebooks, laptops, your cell phone

Healthcare

The school will likely require you to buy health insurance through them, which in the U.S. can range from 2,000 to 4,000 USD per year, or prove you have health insurance from elsewhere; you also may incur personal medical expenses like buying medications

Transportation  

Both getting to school from your home one or more times a year (weekends, holiday breaks) as well as everyday transit needs like a bike, a weekly cab to the grocery store, taking a bus to work

Getting a Visa

Visa application fees, travelling to a visa center or consulate, shipping costs

Everyday Living

New clothes for new weather or for different academic/professional needs; bedding for your new home; toiletries and other personal hygiene items

Personal Entertainment

Food beyond what is offered on campus (cooking, snacks, going out with friends) and other things you do just for fun (movie tickets, museums, shopping)

Everything listed above makes up the direct and indirect costs of your higher education. And while it is great to be aware of these categories, the more important work of anticipating the costs of college is to understand how the price of each thing on the list can vary depending on where you choose to study.

Direct Costs: Classes, Food, and a Bed

When you research how much it costs to go to college, the first number you will probably encounter is the tuition. This is what you pay for your education: going to class, learning from a professor, taking exams. Tuition is usually reported as the price of one year’s worth of studies, and can vary widely depending on the school you attend and how many years you will study there.

And tuition doesn’t pay for any of the things that you need to support your education – both inside and outside of the classroom.

What are you going to do when you aren’t in class? Where will you study, what will you eat? The cost of living and dining throughout your education is a price that could vary widely depending on where you are applying, and could even exceed the price of your actual tuition. This cost is commonly called “room and board.” If you are applying to colleges with on-campus housing or dormitories, and on-campus dining halls or canteens, the price of living might be advertised on the college website.

But what about countries where you are expected to find your own apartment and feed yourself? In that case, the housing and dining expenses may not be advertised alongside the tuition and fall into the category of indirect costs.

Indirect Costs: Everything Else

You’re in the first year of university and you’ve finished a long week of classes. You close your biology textbook and look at your to-do list for the weekend. Time to finally get that annual doctor’s check-up you’ve been putting off! After that you might head to the local city center to watch a movie and stock up on bath soap. And then on Sunday you can’t wait to join your club football team for a match.

Sounds like a productive weekend! But it also contains up to SIX hidden costs that aren’t covered in tuition, room, and board. Can you spot them? Here’s a hint: 

  1. Those study materials aren’t going to buy themselves …

  2. Depending on where you live, healthcare comes at a price.

  3. How will you get into the city?

  4. Gosh, the prices of movies these days …

  5. Maybe I don’t need to haircut *every* month? 

  6. It’s lucky the school has such a nice football pitch!

Going to college isn’t just about taking classes. As I listed in the snapshot above, you will need to pay for school supplies, personal expenses, other fees for things like insurance and activities. Even if you have a full scholarship covering “everything,” there will be indirect costs that will need to come out of your own pocket. The school is giving you free housing? Don’t expect to crash down for a nap the minute you arrive. That bed will need blankets and pillows! 

Another often-overlooked cost is the price of physically getting to and from campus. This could be anything from hopping on the bus to school or the much larger price of paying for a visa and flight to study in a new country. And how often do you expect to visit home? Each of those trips is an indirect cost that adds up towards the total price of your college education. 

Will the costs never stop?! None of this is meant to scare you, but it should definitely push you to make a budget (see below). Especially if you are planning to study in a country where fewer of your activities are covered by the fees you are paying directly to the college, you need to spend time thinking about your lifestyle and expenses, and totaling all the costs. 

Cost of Living Around the World

The key to understanding how much it will actually cost for you to go to college is understanding the cost of living in each of the places where you are applying. Renting a room in Switzerland is very different from renting a room in Estonia.

The key to this step of your college process is: Research, Research, Research.

  • Research: on school websites. Many universities, even if they don’t provide housing, will offer tips on how to find accommodations in the area and give you samples of rent prices. For example, the University of Amsterdam provides a webpage on the costs of student housing and living in Amsterdam.

  • Research: the experiences of current students. Read their blogs, Q&As on social media, watch YouTube videos about international student life. When in doubt, talk to someone who has lived the life you are dreaming of! Colleges sometimes have student ambassadors listed on their website, but if they don’t, you can email the college and ask to be put in touch with a student (and if possible, one from your region).

Building a Budget

All of this research leads to an important final step in comparing the costs of attending college in different places around the world: a budget. A budget will be your best friend in figuring out how much it will actually cost to go to college and how to compare options across multiple schools/countries.

Here’s a very simple budget template. I included two examples of schools with different prices to show how to fill it out:

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