How Much Does College Really Cost?
Updated June 21, 2021 • 2 min read
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To understand the full cost of your education, you must consider the small expenses in addition to tuition.
If you are considering attending college, it's normal to feel anxious about college tuition costs. Factors like reduced state funding and the need to keep programs competitive have caused the average cost of tuition to increase 65% at public colleges and 50% at private colleges since 2000 — and that's before factoring in student fees and living costs.
Attending a public four-year college costs about $20,050 annually, while attending a private four-year college costs $43,130. Attending a community college typically costs $10,704 annually.
The good news is that college can offer a good return on investment (ROI), leading to higher career earnings in the long run — as long as you plan the costs of your education carefully.
College Cost Index
Nearly all college websites will directly state their tuition rates in cost-per-credit terms, but on average, how much does college cost up front? When running the numbers, you should remember that tuition isn't your only concern. You also need to consider the various fees that schools require.
The index below shows sample costs for students studying full time and paying in-state tuition rates and fees. We use numbers like these for all of our college rankings.
|Four-Year College||Actual Cost|
|$$$$$||Western Washington University||$8,343|
|$$$$$||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||$53,790|
Navigating the Cost of College
Before taking on the financial responsibility of attending college, consider the costs of your schooling beyond tuition.
According to the College Board, during the 2019-2020 school year, full-time, on-campus undergraduate students at both private and public colleges spent $1,240 on textbooks alone. Moreover, room and board for those same students costs $11,510 annually at public schools and $12,990 at private schools. You may also encounter technology or student health fees.
Navigating these financial challenges can require resourcefulness and creative solutions. For instance, you might purchase used textbooks and shop for less expensive living options off campus. You may even consider attending school online, especially if housing, living, and commuting costs would burden you financially.
You should also consider the advantages of choosing an in-state college, especially if you plan to attend a public four-year college. Most public colleges offer a significant tuition discount for in-state students. Additionally, many state schools offer in-state tuition for online students, regardless of where they live.
Popular Questions About the Cost of College
How Much Is Too Much for College?
The truth is that college is expensive, but where should you set your limit? To decide how much tuition is worth it for you, ask yourself what you realistically see yourself making in an entry-level job after graduation. If you cannot see yourself paying off your student loans within 10 years on that salary, then the cost probably exceeds your means.
Is It Worth Going in Debt for College?
Going into debt for college can have serious consequences down the road. However, depending on your career path, taking on debt to get an education might make sense for you. If you enter a program in a high-demand, highly compensated field, you may be able to get a good job after graduation and pay down your debts quickly. You may also be pursing a field where you are eligible for debt forgiveness.
Is a More Expensive College Worth It?
Most employers care about what degree you hold and where you earned it. Attending a prestigious school can definitely increase your chances of getting a prestigious job after you graduate, so the extra cost may be worth it. However, the reverse is also true: Attending a school with a bad reputation will hurt your career. This is why it's important to only attend accredited schools.
How Do College Students Spend Most of Their Money?
As a college student, your biggest expenditures will likely come from tuition and rent. You can stay ahead of the curve by limiting non-essential expenses whenever possible.
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