The High Cost of Going Back to School 

Amount spent on back-to-school shopping: $27.3 billion

A survey by the National Retail Federation estimates the average U.S. family will shell out $674 on back-to-school supplies this fall.


A survey by the National Retail Federation estimates the average U.S. family will shell out $674 on back-to-school supplies this fall.

With school bells already ringing across Idaho, Jill Walker—a mother of five—can attest to another tell-tale sound of August: a cash register ringing up the ever-increasing cost of school supplies. Her kids beamed as they filled their mother's cart with binders, backpacks and a generous supply of fruit-scented markers.

"Even my younger ones were old enough to start school this year," said Walker.

She's even purchasing supplies for children other than her own this year.

"We have to supply the classrooms because the [charter] school doesn't get the funding like public schools do. Just for her class alone, we were assigned five extra boxes of crayons," Walker added.

One particularly hot August afternoon, Walker joined dozens of other parents and children scavenging the aisles of a Boise Target store. Melissa, a Boise teenager, beginning her freshman year in high school, was filling her own basket.

"One of my teachers is requiring 25 dividers just for one class," she said.

A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation estimates the average U.S. family will shell out $674 on supplies this fall.

But for families who struggle to afford the required supplies, the Boise school district hosts an S.O.S., or "Sharing Of Supplies" program, which encourages students to purchase extra supplies and drop them off at their principal's office.

The Salvation Army of Treasure Valley partnered with Fred Meyer, ShopKo and other local businesses for its annual school supply drive, aiming to reduce back-to-school sticker shock for families who access services from the Salvation Army and local homeless shelters.

"I can remember, as a kid, that first day back to school when everyone is lined up with their new backpacks and supplies," said Hillary Betz, director of development for Salvation Army of Treasure Valley. "There's so much excitement and nervousness, and if you're the one kid who doesn't have a backpack or other necessary supplies, it can make you feel less confident."

Betz said the Salvation Army program makes a particularly big difference for students in middle school or high school.

"Those prices for higher grades are always increasing, especially as many are preparing for college and other post-secondary education," said Betz. "We provide for elementary education as well, but we really try to make a difference for those middle- and high-school students."

The Boise Rescue Mission also hosts a fund drive, where a donation of $21.52 can provide a child with a backpack and supplies. The Boise School District officially lists backpacks as "optional," but parents and students know a backpack is practically essential, even though they can be pricey.

"Those backpacks are important for hauling supplies back and forth, and also for holding lunches and extra layers of clothes," Betz said.

At Idaho's colleges and universities, more expensive items are must-haves.

"Whether it's a laptop for class or a mini-fridge for the dorm, college simply costs more," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

Julia Kroger is a senior math major at Boise State University, and she has particular insight on the high cost of going back to school. She's also a cashier at the Boise State bookstore.

"Some books are at least $100," she said, pointing to a textbook in one student's basket. "That one psychology book he's about to buy is only available here [at the bookstore], and it starts at $80. Also, students can't rent it and we don't buy it back, either."

Kroger said prices were especially high during "rush," which she described as the "two-week period starting the week before class starts and during the first week of class."

"The publishers just mark up the prices," she said.

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