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From fees to tax relief: Ways to save money on the cost of going to college

Ireland is one of the most expensive places in Europe to attend third-level education but there are ways to minimise the costs

A little learning is a dangerous thing – for your finances that is. Ireland is one of the most expensive places to go to college in the European Union. Prospective “freshers” will soon know what they will study and where. So how much does a third-level education cost these days, and how can parents and students save money?

Fees and grants

College fees are a big-ticket item for third-level students. The €3,000 annual registration fee is the highest in the EU. Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has proposed a funding plan that could see the €3,000 registration fee cut by about €500 a year over the next three years. If you have younger children, raise this with your TD. For now, the charge stands.

The student grant scheme is the main financial support for students. It is divided into maintenance grants and fee grants. Prospective students have been applying through Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi) since April – so far about 71,000 applications have been received, fewer than this time last year.

The grant is means-tested, based on your family’s gross income for the previous full tax year, so 2021. If you have more than one child in college at the same time, the reckonable income limits may be increased. The distance you normally live from the college is also a factor.

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The good news is the annual maintenance grant will increase by €200 this year. Income thresholds for all grant rates, except the special rate for disadvantaged students, will increase by €1,000 and the qualifying distance for the higher non-adjacent rate of maintenance grant will reduce from 45km to 30km. This may do something to help with cost-of-living increases.

If you haven’t already applied for funding, do it now. You will get a sense if you are eligible for funding by completing Susi’s online eligibility reckoner. The payment schedule for the forthcoming academic year is yet to be confirmed, but the first payment is planned for September 2022, according to Susi. The bulk of college places will be offered on September 8th. It’s in your interests to accept your place promptly and register with the college. The college will then confirm your registration with Susi enabling you to receive funds.


Read more cost of living advice


Accommodation

Forget points, the cost and availability of accommodation is playing an increasing hand in educational choices. A place to stay is the biggest bill facing third-level students and some are forced to do a course in a college to which they can commute from home.

If you live out of town and your child bags a spot at UCD, for example, campus accommodation ranges from €6,900 including utilities for the academic year, all the way up to €10,745. At the University of Limerick, the options range from €5,000 to €7,300. It’s not cheap.

A shortage of affordable housing is freezing people out of higher education and eroding university life, Trinity College Dublin provost Linda Doyle has said. With Trinity-owned accommodation options already full for the next academic year, the college recently pleaded with alumni to consider renting a room in their home to a Trinity student. Students can register with the Students Union Accommodation Advisory Service to link with a landlord for what may be a more affordable accommodation option.

Remember “digs”, where you boarded with a family? It’s still a thing, and students can make substantial savings by opting to live with a host family, says TU Dublin student engagement and experience officer, Dr Rachel O’Connor. “Private rooms in purpose-built accommodation in Dublin city centre cost €230-€258 per week. However, living with a host family this year is typically €165 per week for a five-day agreement, including utility bills.” This route can be more flexible, too, as students can opt for a five-day rental agreement over 25-30 weeks, compared with seven days over 40 weeks in some purpose-built student hubs. Most colleges will have a host family database to help your search.

Tax relief

If you are paying third-level fees for your child, you may be entitled to tax back on tuition fees, including the student contribution. The course must be at a publicly funded educational entity and you can claim for more than one child, too.

The relief is available to whoever is paying the cost of the fees – so parents can avail of it, or indeed, the students themselves. “You cannot claim tax relief on examination or administration fees, nor any part of the tuition fees that is met directly or indirectly by a grant, a scholarship, or where fees are reimbursed by an employer,” says Joanna Murphy of Taxback.com.

Tax relief is granted at 20 per cent. There is a limit of fees – €7,000 per course – on which you can claim relief. However, this doesn’t mean you can claim relief up to a maximum of €7,000 per course, says Murphy. Before calculating the tax relief you must also factor in the “disregard” amount, which is €3,000 for full-time courses and €1,500 for part-time courses.

For example, if you paid fees of €10,000 (including the student contribution of €3,000) for a three-year, full-time course, your calculation of relief would be based on your qualifying fee – €7,000 – less the full-time disregard amount of €3,000, leaving €4,000 as the amount the relief applies to, says Murphy. Tax relief on this at 20 per cent would be €800 a year.

There’s no limit to the amount of college-going children for whom you can claim. “Importantly, a single disregard amount is applied to a claim for multiple fees so, for example, if you were claiming for two children, one of whom was on a full-time course, and the other who is on a part-time course, you would only need to deduct the full-time disregard amount of €3,000,” says Murphy.

PAYE workers can make a claim in the current tax year using Revenue’s MyAccount service.

Transport

While students living at home will save on rent, higher transport costs are likely. Those aged 19-23 should get a Young Adult Leap Card for 50 per cent fare reductions on single journeys on Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann (including the Dart), Go-Ahead Ireland, Luas, and participating TFI Local Link services. A cap has been put on the amount you can spend while using your Leap card on one day or week. Once you hit the cap, you travel free for the rest of the day or week. For example, the weekly cap for a student using the Dart is €14.80. Those who haven’t yet reached their 19th birthday are still eligible for even cheaper child fares, so they will get a week on the Dart for a tenner. If you reach the cap in a day, you travel free for the rest of the week.

Unfortunately for students, capping doesn’t apply to the Nitelink. Here’s where a bike will pay for itself. For the cost of a few weeks of late night taxis, you’ll get yourself a decent bike and helmet. You’ll need to spend a good chunk on a lock, too. The annual subscription for a DublinBike is €35 with the first 30 minutes of each journey free.

Living expenses

There will be plenty of debate around how much spending money a student needs. TUI Dublin’s cost of living guide for the forthcoming academic year is a handy reckoner. For students living away from home, the guide estimates monthly living costs of €435, excluding rent, utilities and the student charge. This includes €194 for food, €75 for social life, €64 for books and materials, €48 for travel, €39 for clothes and medical expenses, and €15 for mobile phone.

Before you or your student rush out to buy a snazzy new laptop, check out the deals on the HEAnet Store. It provides well-priced laptops, software and other services for students. You should also check out what software is freely available in your college.

Student assistance fund

With inflation driving up costs, some students will find it particularly hard to make ends meet this year. Don’t hesitate to lean on the Student Assistance Fund – it’s there to help. The Government pumped an additional €18.5 million into this fund in response to Covid-19. If you or your child is experiencing difficulty with the cost of books, class materials, rent, utilities, food, essential travel, childcare, medical and other costs, the student should contact student services in their college to apply. Students may be asked to include proof of their own or parents’ income and proof of costs. Applications will be treated confidentially. Apply as soon as you can as some colleges have a closing date for applications.