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How Much Does College Cost?

What's the Price Tag of a College Education?

When thinking about the price of college, people often focus on college tuition costs. But the total price tag can include additional expenses ranging from housing and transportation to school supplies. Let's take a look at the average costs behind a year of college.

In its 2020 report, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, the College Board reports that a moderate college budget for an in-state student attending a four-year public college in 2020-2021 averages $26,820. For out-of-state students at public colleges, the average budget comes to $43,280, and for students attending private colleges, the average budget is $54,880.

Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, 2020.

What Expenses Go Into the Cost of College?

Colleges estimate the total cost to attend their institution for a single year, not including grants and scholarships, in a figure called the Cost of Attendance (COA). Think of the COA as a college’s “sticker price.” Need-based aid, merit aid, and scholarships can reduce your total cost.

Generally, colleges include the following expenses in their COA:

  • tuition and fees
  • room and board
  • books and supplies
  • transportation and personal expenses

Take a look at the average total price colleges charged in these categories for the 2020-2021 academic year, and keep them in mind when you are planning your own college budget.

Average College Tuition and Fees

Although college tuition and fees are separate costs, colleges usually report a combined tuition and fees figure. For the 2020-2021 academic year, the average price of tuition and fees came to:

  • $37,650 at private colleges
  • $10,560 at public colleges (in-state residents)
  • $27,020 at public colleges (out-of-state residents)

What is college tuition? College tuition is what colleges charge for the instruction they provide. Colleges charge tuition by the units that make up an academic year, such as a semester or quarter. Tuition at public colleges is usually lower for in-state residents. Out-of-state students often pay double the tuition as in-state students.

Tuition can vary by major. Students in the sciences, engineering, computing, pre-med programs, and the fine arts often pay higher tuition than students in other majors. For example, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, students enrolled in the College of Engineering pay up to $5,000 more in tuition per year than students pursuing majors in the liberal arts.

What college fees cover. Fees may support services such as the library, campus transportation, student government, and athletic facilities. Fees charged can vary widely from college to college. For example, the University of California, Irvine charges students a “campus spirit fee” to help support the athletics and school spirit programs and a fee for student health insurance.

Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, 2020.

What is the Cost of Room and Board?

The cost of room and board depends on the campus housing and food plans you choose. Living at home with parents will reduce your costs. For the 2020-2021 academic year, average room and board costs are

  • $13,120 at private colleges
  • $11,620 at public colleges

Some colleges provide room and board estimates for living off-campus. At public colleges, room and board costs are usually the same for in-state and out-of-state residents.

Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, 2020.

Cost of Books and School Supplies

The average price of books and school supplies for students at both public and private colleges in 2020-2021 is $1,240.

Textbook prices have risen 812 percent since 1978, according to a 2019 report by Follet, an educational products company. Borrowing books from the library or purchasing digital or used textbooks can reduce your costs, but students still find budgeting for textbooks to be a major source of stress, according to a survey of current and former college students by textbook publisher Cengage. Thirty-one percent of the students surveyed said they took fewer classes to save on textbook costs, and 43 percent said they skipped meals or took out loans to pay for course materials.

Other Expenses

Colleges may estimate some expenses they don't bill you for. These include local transportation, clothing, personal items, and entertainment. The College Board reports that for the aceademic year 2020-2021, expenses in this category range from $2,870 at private colleges to $3,400 at public universities.

College Net Price vs. Sticker Price

While a college's sticker price can give you an idea of your college costs, it's important to consider a college’s net price, which is the price students and families pay after factoring in financial aid. According to the College Board, the average "net price" families are paying for the 2020-2021 academic year is approximately:

  • $33,200 at private colleges*
  • $19,490 at public colleges*

*After subtracting financial aid and education tax benefits. 

The average grant aid awarded per student was $7,330 at public colleges and $21,660 at private schools. 

Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, 2020.

The cost of college may seem overwhelming, but a college education comes at many different price levels, and financial aid can reduce the total cost. Look at the Cost of Attendance as the maximum you and your family might pay. Your college net price can be much lower.

Source: Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, 2020. The College Board.

What's Next?

Learn about getting financial aid and what financial aid types are best.

The reported college "cost of attendance" is rarely the cost students pay. Learn why net price is the most critical figure for families to consider.

Use the Net Price Calculator to estimate your net price to attend any four-year college.

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