All kinds of little charges add up to make college more expensive than we ever anticipated.

Share story

“I don’t understand it — money keeps disappearing from my bank account,” our son, a freshman at Western Washington University, complained.

Turns out he was right. An ATM on the Western campus — prominently advertised as a “no-fee ATM” — was dinging us $2 every time he withdrew money.

Parents, keep a close watch on your wallets. The business of sending your kid to college is hazardous to your bank account, and it extends far beyond tuition and fees.

In this case, our bank refunded the money, even though it wasn’t their ATM. I don’t know if Western realizes they are giving prime real estate to a cash machine that’s guilty of false advertising, or if something went awry in our own bank’s system.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Sometimes it seems like your kid’s college isn’t looking out for your own best interests. Other times, it seems like they’re complicit in the nickel-and-diming.

During the first quarter of his freshman year, our son realized that the dining plan we’d selected wasn’t going to provide him with enough food. Unbeknownst to us, he switched to a higher dining plan for an additional $127 for the quarter. Both my husband and I got an email saying we owed Western some extra money, but we weren’t sure what the charge was and both thought the other had taken care of it.

After a few weeks, Western charged us an extra $40 for not paying right away – even though our son had not yet eaten his way through his entire food budget, much less the extra he had purchased. It was like getting charged by a restaurant for not paying up-front quickly enough for a meal you hadn’t eaten yet.

Unlike our bank, Western was unmoved by our logic. We had to pay the late fee.

One of my neighbors is still smarting over the $50 parking ticket he got at the University of Washington while attending his son’s freshman orientation, even though he had a parking voucher and thought he had parked in the right location. He’s so mad that he’s sworn not to give the UW any donations — and of course, like all colleges, they’ve already started asking.

Don’t get us college parents started on textbooks. Our son had to buy an ebook for a geology class for $85 last quarter. Since it’s an ebook, he can’t resell it, so that money is gone.

(Paul Tong / Op Art)
(Paul Tong / Op Art)

But overall, Western’s book charges haven’t been that bad so far. Last year I got a call from a UW parent who had shelled out $800 on textbooks for her son for just one quarter alone. The books included a $225 Italian language textbook and a $158 accounting textbook — both packaged with a computer code that gave access to online learning tools. Once you use the code, it cannot be used again, so the books cannot be resold.

My daughter’s private college in California has been especially egregious about extra charges. For example, we pay a mandatory $400 a year for access to athletic events — even though she’s not interested in sports, and has only gone to two basketball games during her entire four years there. At that price, times four years, we could have bought a pair of excellent seats to see the Lakers.

This year, her college tacked on a $50 fee for paying tuition charges electronically. They also charge a fee if you pay by personal check. Apparently, the only way you can escape a fee is if you deliver a suitcase full of cash to the registrar’s office. What business charges you to pay them?

In my experience, most colleges are tone-deaf to parent complaints about the little dings. If a company treated us like this, we’d pull up and take our business elsewhere. Unfortunately, you can’t do that when your kid is in college.

Parents: What are the “extra” college costs that cause you the most grief? Who typically pays for these small (or not-so-small) expenses — you or your student? Share your thoughts in the comments or in our Facebook group for college parents.