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The high cost of college fees

You think college tuition costs are high? Many schools have come up with some new ways to empty your wallet and fill their coffers -- by imposing university fees.

Drop a course a day late, register 10 minutes after the deadline or park in the wrong place on campus and you could be hit with hefty fines that can add hundreds, and sometimes thousands, to your annual bill.

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Many students are totally unaware of the rules, deadlines and policies that trigger the fees.

Sometimes, fee notification comes via e-mail that goes awry in an ancient college system or snail mail that ends up at a summer address. Within weeks, a little fee snowballs into a financial mess.

"It's hard to tell a freshman that you need to pay attention to these things," says Gary Carpenter, executive director of the National Institute of Certified College Planners. "But you need to make sure you're on top of these fees. It's a profit center for them."

Carpenter says schools use fees to avoid raising tuition. Padding from fees can keep blanket tuition hikes down, and so the careless subsidize the careful.

If you're starting school, or if your kid is, get a copy of the university calendar and read that thing like it contains the secret to eternal health.

Read your bill super carefully

One way to avoid major fees is to check your university bill for errors, says Carpenter.

"When you get to school, the first thing you do is go to the financial aid office and make sure your aid is right," he says.

Every year, he sees families paying $400 to $500 for health insurance that they already have through an employer.

"If the family doesn't submit proof of insurance, there's a double fee. Sometimes families have so much sticker shock over the total price tag, they don't even notice the $400."

Registration disasters

Apart from a financial-aid error, the priciest mistake you can make at most schools is registering too late, or forgetting to choose your classes until the semester actually starts.

In addition to missing out on the courses you like, you can be slammed with fees that range from a slap on the hand to several hundred dollars.

The University of Chicago bills a $250 "continuous registration penalty fee" for students who haven't paid five weeks into the semester. Its other late fees range from $50 to $200.

At Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, you will be billed $25 per day for "late submission of forms and documents," according to the school registrar's site.

And if you don't drop a class in time, you can be billed for the entire course. At the University of Iowa, just a week of delay can mean a bill of several thousand dollars -- for a course you didn't stay in.

The only way out is to be vigilant about deadlines. Then, double-check your registration records and university bill against each other and make sure they match.

Protest any financial errors

If you get hit with fees that are not your fault, protest.

"The computers here botched one of my registrations last year for winter quarter. For some reason they had no record of it," says John Curry, a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern history at Ohio State.

"I did not find out until four weeks into the quarter that I was not registered," Curry says, "and only because I received no paycheck or insurance coverage for one of my dental claims.

"Needless to say, my wife and I were in horrible shape for the rest of the
quarter, and to boot, the university tried to charge me $800 for a late registration."

Curry tried protesting, but got nowhere at first.

"Only after multiple appeals to the dean and my advisers did I finally have this exorbitant sum refunded to me -- two months later."

Curry says that the larger context of these fees is that they can be the last straw for students struggling to get through school.

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-- Posted: Feb. 9, 2005

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