The hidden costs of “full-tuition” scholarships

The New York Times Education Life section has published a very important article about some of the hidden costs of college. It focuses on the fees that schools tack on for everything from orientation to “student excellence,” and that families paying for college may not even be aware of until they get the bill.

Apparently, many of these charges used to be covered by tuition but in recent years have been increasingly shifted to the “fees” category, where they can no longer be covered by scholarship money.

The part of the article that struck me the most, however, was the section on the fees borne by recipients of full-tuition scholarships.

I admit that until a few months ago, when I started digging into the intricacies of National Merit Scholarships as a result of some readers’ comments, I was relatively ignorant of many of the issues surrounding financial/merit aid.

And until I read the article, I unconsciously assumed (as, as I suspect, many people do) that “full-tuition” scholarships generally covered the bulk of a student’s costs.

But as it turns out, that’s not how it actually works. A “full-tuition” scholarship covers exactly that: tuition. It does not (necessarily) cover fees, which may be much, much higher. As a result, families may end up on the hook for thousands of dollars.

The article recounts the cautionary tale of Valerie Innis, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst:

When [Innis] won a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Massachusetts, she thought she was going to college free — until she received an ominous email sophomore year. “Check your balance,” it said, and when Ms. Innis looked at her account, she discovered an outstanding bill of $16,000.

The University of Massachusetts has been doing some fancy bookkeeping for decades to insulate itself from cuts to the state education budget. In-state tuition last year was just $1,714, while fees cost more than seven times that much: $12,457. That’s largely because of its hefty curriculum fee, created in 1989. While the university had to turn tuition over to the state, it could keep all fee revenue — an arrangement that ended this summer under a new state law that allows it to retain tuition revenue. Curriculum fees are gone, as is the full-tuition scholarship, now replaced with one valued at $1,714.

So if you or your child will be relying on tuition-based scholarships to cover the cost of college, do your due diligence. This is not information that colleges are likely to volunteer on their own. Don’t be seduced by the prestige of a “full-tuition” scholarship and assume that tuition-free = cost free (or almost cost-free). Read the fine print, and ask the financial aid office pointed questions. It might help you avert a very unpleasant surprise a few years down the line.