College Is Getting More Expensive

September 9th 2016

Mike Rothschild

The average senior caries a debt load of nearly $30,000 — and that’s only for classes, room, and board. Even with all that money spent, the actual costs of day-to-day college life are exploding, and students are clearly feeling more pressure to “keep up” with their classmates when it comes to dorms, electronics, partying, and spending.

Students are spending absurd amounts of money on things they either feel like they need, or expensive versions of things they actually do need. What are some of the worst offenders, and how can students stay out of the trap of overspending on basic items? Here are some of the hugely expensive things a college student is liable to blow their money on:

1. Posh Dorm Rooms

The days of decorating your freshman dorm room with empty Mountain Dew cans, the John Belushi “College” poster and a few cheap-o art prints are long over. The Cut revealed a new trend among freshman roommates that’s either super-glam or really disturbing: ultra-luxurious decorating of dorm rooms. That article quotes a Buzzfeed piece about two Ole Miss roommates who fitted out their bland, utilitarian dorm with “plush white headboards, plush white rugs, plush white ottomans, plush white pillows” and “a nightstand-microwave combo.”

Naturally, the piece went viral, and students from around the country posted pictures of their dorms, showing off custom-made bedding, high-end furnishings, art, electronics, and draperies. Before that, the New York Times showcased what’s become a new college tradition — the start-of-school Target run, where kids drop thousands of dollars to turn their dorms into mini hotel suites. Needless to say, all of this stuff is expensive – and fueling a “back to college” industry that generates as much as $50 billion per year.

2. Pricey Dorm Room Gadgets

This is a different type of overspending than Pottery Barn pillows, bespoke mattress pads, and 500 thread count sheets. College means work – and the ability to do it anywhere. So a good laptop or desktop, efficient printer, a high-quality light for reading, and fast device chargers are virtually mandatory. But there’s a lot more you can buy — and a lot of pressure to buy it.

Those lists of “essential” and “must have” items for a college dorm room or apartment, featuring state of the art sound systems, desk setups, smart pens, temperature controls, study pillows, vacuums, headphones and coffee makers? They might be fun, impressive to dorm-mates, and marginally useful — but they’re pricey and do the same thing that cheaper versions do. The same goes for super-expensive laptops, flat-screen TVs, and the latest tablet computer/smart phone.

3. New Textbooks

The staggering cost of college textbooks is such an issue that even Kanye West weighed in with a tweetstorm about a friend of his who makes nearly six figures, yet can barely afford her son’s college classroom material. While Kanye’s rants usually have a more Kanye-centric perspective, he was right on the money on this one.

Textbook costs have exploded over 1,000-fold since 1977, and have gone up a wallet-destroying 73 percent just since 2006. Lack of competition in the textbook market keeps a captive audience of college students in a circular grip — students are being gouged to buy books they literally have to buy to attend classes. The cost of a single book can run from $200 to $400, and since the College Board recommends spending about $1,200 per year (not semester) on books and materials, this leaves low income students scrambling just to stay afloat.

But thrifty students who can’t splurge on new books do have hope. Used textbook stores can be found on almost every major college campus, while some colleges have moved to an open textbook model, making them available online for free. Major online booksellers have lower prices on used books, and sites like SlugBooks serve as an Orbitz for textbooks, letting students compare prices. There are even rental options available at certain schools.

4. Credit Card Interest

Credit card debt has become a huge problem for students, leading to massive overspending on interest rates. Credit card companies prey on teenagers who have poor financial educations to hit them with card offers, rewards programs, and free stuff. Some of these abuses were curbed by the CARD Act of 2009, but the overspending is still happening – and can start graduates off with a crippling burden.

Research by federal debt consolidation firm Consolidated Credit reveals that college graduates have an average debt load of over $2,700. Even that relatively small amount of money can take well over a decade to pay off if only the minimum payments are made — with thousands of dollars spent on interest in the meantime. 9 percent of students have debt of over $7,000— with nearly that many bankruptcies declared by people under 25.

That said, responsible credit card use can be hugely beneficial for college students. Most have no credit history when they enter school, and making small purchases on a card and paying it off in full every month can make it much easier to start financing bigger purchases after graduation. It can also be safer than making online purchases with a debit card, or carrying large amounts of cash.

5. Eating Out/Drinking

Obviously, no college student is realistically going to make it through four years without going out to dinner, grabbing lunch on the go, or hitting bars. But the sheer amount of money that college students spend on food and alcohol is staggering. It’s even worse when you take into account that food costs are already baked into students' room and board fees — meaning they’re essentially paying for two meals each time they eat out and not in a dining hall.

Research has indicated that the typical college student spends about $900 to $1,000 per year on alcohol. Some spend a lot more, either to impress their friends, or because they’ve got a problem that has to be dealt with. They also spend an average of about $800 a year on off-campus food, not counting groceries. Taken together, this can lead to nearly five figures of spending in a college career. And where does most of that go? Right onto the credit card.

Some of these absurd outlays can’t be avoided, even by the most budget-minded student. You’ve got to eat and sleep somewhere, and have textbooks for class. But the ways college students can spend ridiculous amounts of money have exploded — and most of it can be avoided simply by doing without, or with less.