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Column: Back to School Costs Wallop the Wallet

From tuition to school supplies, it's a bank-breaking time for parents and students of all ages.

The start of school is right around the corner. It’s a time of anticipation, trepidation and spending.

For college students, like those starting at or returning to Drew, Fairleigh Dickinson University and the College of St. Elizabeth for orientation or the start of classes this week and next, it’s a very expensive month.

At these private schools, the cost for tuition, room and board ranges from $38,000 a year to more than $50,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average cost of a private college more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, much higher than the 63 percent rate of inflation during that same time frame.

Similarly, public college tuitions and fees also have more than doubled, to a national average in 2008-09 of $15,876. That average would be somewhat higher today, but New Jersey’s public colleges still cost far more than the average, with the lowest starting at about $22,000 for tuition, room and board. A New Jersey student can attend a New York state public college for about the same amount as his in-state discount at a school here.

Don’t forget to add on another thousand or more, possibly much more, for fees and books–unless you have had recent experience with college, you would probably be shocked by the cost of text books today.

Then there’s all the other stuff students going away to college need: A room refrigerator and microwave, specially-sized sheets and bedding, a complete desk set, a laptop, all the way down to band-aids, Tylenol and flip flops. The National Retail Federation estimates the average parent spends $800 to outfit a child for college. Around here, people likely spend a lot more.

It all makes the county colleges seem a smart option, particularly for students who are unsure of what they want to do. Tuition at County College of Morris this year will total about $4,400, including course fees, for a student taking 30 credits, with some additional fees on top of that.  

New Jersey has improved the interaction between the county colleges and state schools so that it is easier to transfer credits between the two.

There are also the New Jersey STARS programs, which thankfully did not get cut from the state budget. These two programs provide a great way for a high-achieving student to get an associate’s degree tuition free and get a scholarship of as much as $7,000 in their junior and senior years to complete a bachelor’s degree at a state college.

State colleges do offer some scholarship money, and private schools typically offer even more, so the average student who doesn’t qualify for financial aid–and most students who can afford to live in the Morris County area aren’t offered anything but loans–still doesn’t pay the advertised tuition and fees.

What they do pay is still much higher than two decades ago, forcing many families to cobble together student loans, home equity loans and even borrow from retirement accounts to make sure high school graduates get that college degree that is supposed to make them a well-rounded person, but more importantly, bring them greater wealth.

Except in the current economy, where jobs have been scarce since the recession hit in 2008.

Families of younger students in public schools aren’t spared back-to-school costs, either.

The NRF estimates the average family will spend $600 this fall to outfit students in grades K-12 with notebooks, binders, pens, pencils, lunchboxes, backpacks and new duds for school. Again, wealthier families in communities like Morris Township, Madison and Long Valley probably spend significantly more.

According to the NRF, the back-to-school season is the second biggest shopping season after Christmas, with sales reaching $68 billion nationwide.

That much spending ought to boost the economy. That would be welcome news for 428,000 out-of-work New Jerseyans, including so many recent college graduates. And welcome news for parents who have been watching their savings–including the money they have put aside to send their children to college–ride the recent market roller coaster. Navigating the economic climate these days is scarier than any amusement park ride.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

steve revette August 22, 2011 at 07:42 PM
This is great. I am glad people are spending money on buying supplies. The only way the economy is going to get better is by spending. RAISING TAXES will not will not do anything. Everybody go out and spend.
Jeanne Feenick August 22, 2011 at 10:26 PM
I'm doing my part, daughter Maja is heading back to Hamilton College tomorrow and the bill for school supplies and dorm necessities surely provided a nice boost to the local economy!
Bonnie Anderson August 23, 2011 at 02:20 AM
I have been buying all of the cheap supplies as they go on sale just in case it's what the teacher's finally decide to tell us they want. It has been so frustrating for years now. I guess I'm just numb. Kind of wondering why we have to re-invent the wheel every year.
chicky August 23, 2011 at 02:04 PM
I usually send my kids to school the first day with pen, pencil and spiral notebook. Once the teachers decide they want, I then go get it. Otherwise, it's a catch 22.
Jeanne Feenick August 26, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Good thinking on your part Chicky - if only I had trained my kids this way, I would have saved a lot of $$ along the way. My kids wanted to arrive with a backpack filled with stuff, all labeled with a permanent marker....guaranteeing that they could not be returned when the "real needs" were identified by the teacher ;-(.

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