Fall term is in the books and we’ve learned quite a bit about college! Having the kids home for the holidays meant not just lots of fun family time but also an opportunity to catch up with their friends and hear about their college experiences. Now that they’re back in school, I’ve had a chance to digest some of the stories. Some things we’ve learned:

College is harder than high school! Surprisingly, it was the kids in liberal arts programs—not those on STEM tracks—who consistently said that college is harder than high school. Most who felt that way pointed to the heavy reading load, which is a huge change from most high school English classes.

College is easier than high school! Those who had taken a lot of IB classes felt very well-prepared for college. Most said that their high school writing class was harder than the same college class, in terms of both work load and grading. We heard that from kids who attended several different high schools and are now at various colleges. (I would assume the same for AP classes; however, all the students who mentioned this had taken IB.)

Meal plans tend to end up providing more than you need, but they still save you money. One reason is that meal plans aren’t subject to sales tax, whereas paying cash for your meals in the dining halls usually means you do pay sales tax. We signed Alex up for the middle meal plan option, which equates to about 2 meals per day, and he finished the semester with about $600 in unspent funds. (Fortunately this carries over to subsequent school years, which seems to be typical at most schools that have value-based plans.) Between the free pizza that’s offered just about everywhere to get kids to participate in activities and never eating breakfast on campus, it’s pretty easy for students to get by with minimal meal plans. Something to remember when you sign up: typically you’re allowed to upgrade if you haven’t signed up for enough, but not to downgrade if you’re not using what you signed up for, so make sure to be clear on the meal plan terms including whether you can carry over a balance into the next school year.

You have to opt-in to a social life. Every school is different in this regard, in terms of both what activities are available and how students participate in them. You may need to sign up or you might just need to show up, but even in situations where everyone who shows up gets to play, you still have to show up. Why does this matter? Because not finding “your people” is a pretty common reason why students end up transferring, and transferring can be costly. Chances are good that whatever your thing is, you can find a group that does it. Alternatively, academic residential communities, Greek life and on-campus jobs can all help students to engage.

Trying to be a “cool” roommate can be very costly. Students whose roommates engage in criminal or self-destructive behavior can pay the price, too, especially if they don’t report it to one of available resources. One student was evicted and permanently barred from university housing because his roommate had drugs in the room. He hadn’t reported the roommate’s drug use on the assumption that everyone knew; however, when the drug-using roommate was evicted he did not claim all of the drugs as his own, leaving the onus on the non-user to prove his innocence. In another situation, a student’s self-destructive behavior eventually spilled over into behavior that was harmful to her roommate. However, because the roommate had never discussed the situation with anyone, resolving it took quite a bit more time than might have been the case had she brought the issues to her RA immediately.

There are lots of opportunities to cut your college costs, many of which you won’t find out about until you get to school. At my son’s school, students who work in the dining halls get discounted meals. At my daughter’s, students who volunteer to organize the dorm’s weekly study break get a discount on their housing costs. We heard of numerous other insider tips from friends, so you should ask around at your school.