Plan for Technology Costs When Saving for College

Reyna Gobel

Textbooks may soon be as outdated as the phrase "Kodak moment."

That's how Jeff Livingston, a vice president with McGraw-Hill Education, sees it. "Kids won't even know what that word means," he says.

A result of this shift is the need for devices to access instructional materials from a personal computer outside of college computer labs, Livingston says. Parents who are saving for their children's college education shouldn't ignore this unavoidable expense just because it wasn't a necessity during their university days.

Experts recommend looking at past trends and current college technology needs as parents take the following steps to develop a savings plan for their child's future technology expenses.

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1. Determine the student's technology needs: Students already in school have different technology needs than those who will start in a few years, Livingston says. "At this point, a student can get by with at least one device that can access the Internet as rapidly as the school can offer."

A variety of tablets and nearly any recent laptop will allow students to do just that, he says. While he doesn't recommend it as the only form of technology a student has, he's even heard some students say they get by with just a smartphone.

However, Livingston predicts that in the future, all course materials will be online and interactive. Old devices will be out-of-date faster because learning material will gain more interactive features.

He says parents should expect to replace laptops or tablets at least twice during the student's college years.

Current students as well as freshmen won't have to worry about purchasing two computers. Ryan Law, director of the Office for Financial Success at the University of Missouri, says computers purchased before college by current first- and second-year students will get them through their senior years.

2. Estimate the cost of future computers and tablets: Some good news is that technology prices traditionally haven't been affected by inflation. Prices have been fairly consistent over the years, says Livingston.

For more than 10 years, a good laptop or a personal computer has cost between $1,000 and $1,500, he says. "What changed is what you could get for $1,000 to $1,500."

Then, the tablet revolution meant a laptop or tablet, often suitable for use as a student's primary computer, could be purchased for $500 to $1,000, he says. He doesn't see prices going up beyond $500 to $1,000 - the change will be better technology for the same price.

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3. Consider the cost of instructional materials: Estimating the total future expenses of software and instructional materials is harder, Livingston says. However, he predicts these costs will be charged on a semester-by-semester basis, like tuition and fees.

A good model for comparison is LexisNexis, an online research database. Many law schools include subscription costs as part of tuition and fees. Livingston says parents could estimate a per-semester cost for all course materials of $300 to $400 for students more than two years away from attending college.

For teenagers entering college soon, parents or students should check with the school and department for software and other requirements, Law says. Schools such as Virginia Tech, Northwestern College and the University of Florida already have minimum computer requirements posted on their websites. However, software requirements frequently vary by major.

And parents who remember reselling textbooks to help pay for their next semester will have to nix this cost-saving idea - it's typically not possible to resell digital learning materials.

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4. Encourage children to help save: Based on Livingston's predictions, parents with two or more years before their child attends college need to save between $3,400 and $5,200 for technology and learning materials, including replacing a laptop or tablet once during four years of college. That price range includes $300 to $400 per semester for learning materials during those four years.

The good news for parents is that while children may not always understand tuition and fees, they usually understand the need for a computer.

"A teen who works from 16 to 18 can invest two years of earnings at a part-time job in a laptop," says Syracuse, N.Y.-based accountant Ted Sarenski. "Parents shouldn't shoulder all the costs and this is a perfect opportunity to get kids to invest in part of their education that they really understand and value."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.