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Columbia University recently decided to waive course fees for students on financial aid, but Penn's policy works on a case-by-case basis.

Credit: Lizzy Machielse

For students who attend elite private schools like Penn and Columbia University, tuition and other expenses can be over $60,000 a year. But when course fees for individual classes — like laboratory or fine arts classes — are factored in, costs can climb even higher.

But beginning this academic year, Columbia waived laboratory and other course fees for all Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science students receiving any financial aid — approximately half of its undergraduate population.

For the 47 percent of Penn students who receive financial aid, the policy is more complicated.

Mandatory course fees can be added to a student’s cost of attendance, and aid packages are reassessed on a case by case basis.

The cost of attendance is used to determine the amount of financial need — the difference between a student’s expected family contribution and the cost of attendance — and thus to determine the size of a student’s financial aid package.

University Director of Financial Aid Elaine Varas said the process is two-pronged.

“One is the schools identifying what those fees are and when those fees are, as early as possible. And the second is to clearly identify whether these fees are required. So if they’re not required, they just happen to be something that they feel would be helpful for you to have, that’s also different,” she said.

“We have to know if it’s required, and then when we review the student’s package, we will review the student’s package for eligibility, based on those two criteria. And there’s no guarantee that that will be funded by grants, but it can be funded. If it’s a requirement, it gets added to the cost of attendance.”

Columbia students receiving any aid will be exempt from laboratory and other course fees, regardless of whether a course fee is required for their majors and no matter the size of their aid packages.

Columbia College Dean James Valentini told the Columbia Daily Spectator that the change is expected to lift a burden that course fees previously placed on students.

“They’re not facing an uncertainty anymore about, ‘What’s the cost of my curriculum going to be?’ We will now be waiving those fees,” Valentini told the Spectator. “That reduces an uncertainty, and I think reduces stress and allows students to engage more effectively with their academic lives.”

For students who major in fine arts or a natural science at Penn, several classes with additional fees are required.

According to sample schedules from each department’s website, students pay $1,050 in fees for the biology major, $1,125 in fees for the biological basis of behavior major, $1,200 in fees for the chemistry major and $600 in fees for the fine arts major.

Individual course fees range from $75 for many fine arts classes to $300 for the more expensive chemistry laboratory classes.

“Typically people who major in the sciences have to take more than one — they have to take bio lab, chem lab — so it starts to add up,” College sophomore and biological basis of behavior major Cole Purdy said.

Varas emphasized the option for students to come to Student Financial Services if they are concerned about the additional cost of course fees.

“Students need to know that if this is a required fee, and it has not already been added to their cost of attendance,” she said, “we absolutely can add it to their cost of attendance.”

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