Most schools lump tuition and fees into a single line item on their costs, but students and parents should have visibility to which is which. It can take a little bit of digging to find out, though.

First, what are fees? They can be anything from health insurance to fitness center costs to capital improvement costs to class fees and a host of other things; it’s not unusual for fees to run north of $2,000 annually. It’s important to know how much of your bill is fees for several reasons:

  • Often a scholarship will only cover tuition, not fees
  • You may be able to opt out of some, but only if you know what they are and how to do so
  • While university fees are generally included in your total cost of attendance, class fees generally are not, so families do need to do their research upfront to estimate this expense
  • Institutions generally have more latitude to raise fees than to raise tuition, so this part of your total cost may be subject to larger increases over four years.

Fees generally fall into two categories: class fees and institutional fees. Students in STEM fields or other courses of study with substantial lab work or materials should expect course fees. Families can estimate such fees by looking at course catalogs for current fee levels.

Institutional fees take a little more digging, and seem to vary much more by school with public school fees generally being much higher than privates. For example, University of Oregon’s fees for full-time students are over $700 per quarter and include such items as a bond fee for the rec center (in addition to a rec center fee) and a “health service fee” that does not include insurance. In addition, all new students pay a Matriculation Fee of $430; incoming freshmen may also attend a two-day orientation for $280. Boston University, by contrast, charges only $566 per semester in fees; orientation costs a one-time $300. UCLA’s fees run upwards of $700 per quarter, plus a $165 new student document fee. Yale only charges an annual $125 Student Activities Fee, which students can opt out of. None of this includes late fees, parking fines (which may be assessed on bikes as well as cars at many schools), and countless other ways to spend money.

Many schools also automatically charge students for health insurance; however, you can opt out of this as long as you pay attention to how and the deadline for doing so. Opting out of other fees varies by institution and by fee.

Even when fees are mandatory, you should pay attention to how much of your bill is fees vs tuition. A recent study showed that while public university tuition increased by 80% from 2000-2017, fees increased by more than 100% in the same time period. Note that public schools are more likely to rely on fees than are privates because tuition increases typically have more approval layers and requirements than do those at private schools.