02/18/2011 12:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Goes Into Total College Costs (Infographic)

By blogger and UNC student Eric Pait.

There is an old saying that "nothing in life is free," and while there are many instances in which it is seemingly disproven, college is not one of them. While colleges offer plenty of things that are advertised as free, such as tickets to sporting events and speaker series, most students don't realize the ever-increasing amount of money they pay to get a college degree actually includes fees to cover these activities.

Colleges always post an estimated cost of attending their institution for the coming year, but what exactly do these figures, generally $15,000-20,000 annually for in-state students, entail?

The actual cost of taking college courses. Colleges will either charge a certain fee per credit hour, or have a flat rate for full-time students. Surprisingly enough, for in-state students at a public University, tuition is one of the smallest contributors to the estimated cost of attendance.

Required Fees
Often paired with tuition for a single figure in cost-breakdowns, these fees cover all of those "free" activities and services found around campus. From free tickets to football games and concerts to covering operating costs for the student union, the exact breakdown of these fees will vary greatly, but they often consist of at least a quarter of the cost of that section labeled "Tuition & Fees."

Room & Board
Arguably the most expensive cost associated with getting a college education. The cost of room and board accounts for the majority of the gap between the cost of tuition and the total estimated cost, but will vary based on where you choose to live and which meal-plan you select. At older schools, getting a room with air conditioning will often bring a premium, and a general rule of thumb is the more people you have in your room, the cheaper the total cost will be - so there will be yet another premium if you want that single dorm to yourself.

Everything Else
Many colleges and universities will pad their total cost estimates to account for various personal expenses that not every student requires. These costs include purchasing a laptop and travel expenses, so you could very easily end up paying several thousand dollars less than the estimated cost if you are attending a college close to home and already own your own computer.

Regardless of where exactly all of the money goes, the fact of the matter is that the economic recession led states to cut their education budgets, forcing state universities to increase all of these fees to recuperate lost funds and compensate for ever increasing operational costs. With this in mind, the real question is: "How do you make the most of the thousands you are paying for college?"

If it's free, don't pass it up
At this point, it's pretty obvious that nothing in college is actually free, so if it says free, that simply means you already paid for it. Not going is like throwing away from of that precious money you forked over for your degree, so why not? That Thursday night lecture, whose speaker your fees paid to fly in, is likely more interesting than your textbooks anyway.

Know deadlines
Colleges have a wonderful way of getting even more money out of you on top of your fees: deadlines. Whether it is changing your meal plan without penalty, or paying the tuition bill, avoiding late fees will keep you from spending hundreds of dollars extra.

Meal plan options are your friends
One of those deadlines I just mentioned is how long you have to change your meal plan without penalty. If your mom or dad insists on you getting the unlimited plan, but after the first week or two you find yourself only eating a meal or two in the dining hall a day, change your plan. There is no reason to be paying extra money for food you're not eating, unless of course you like being bale to sneak in for cookies anytime you want.