How Much Does College Cost? Discover Important Information That You Need to Know
Last Updated June 23, 2020
How much does college cost? That is the burning question for many future students and parents alike. Unfortunately, the answer is not always straightforward. There are multiple variables that you need to consider when trying to create a college budget. Things like how soon you plan to go to school, where you will study, what type of institution you will attend, and whether you will live on or off campus are all important factors that will affect your budget.
College and university tuition rates and fees have been steadily increasing year after year, so the sooner you are able to attend school, the better. Deciding where you will study is also important. Community colleges can offer low tuition rates, but the lowest rates are offered only to those students who reside within their districts. And the same goes for most of the traditional four-year colleges and universities. Out-of-state students pay much higher tuition at many of those institutions. Vocational schools* are another option. Although they may have higher tuition fees, they also tend to have shorter programs and don't charge premiums based on a student's state or district of residence. Plus, they frequently offer streamlined paths to associate or bachelor's degrees.
As you discover the answer to "How much does it cost to go to college?" you may want to consider the following aspects:
Although some people feel that college should be free, the current reality is that it is not. So keep reading and discover the average cost of college in order to become better prepared for the future!
* In this article, the terms vocational school, career college, and trade school are used interchangeably.
The Opportunity Cost of Going to College
Many potential students just like you wonder about the opportunity cost of attending college. After all, with every choice that you make, you are choosing not to do something else. So by choosing to attend college, you are choosing not to remain in the workforce. And along with less time spent in the workforce, time spent in school often results in higher student debt. So is the potential college opportunity cost even worth it?
One study examined job creation during the post-recession recovery from January 2010 to January 2016. In that time, 11.6 million jobs were created, and over 95 percent of them went to people with at least some post-secondary education. The study also found that workers with at least some college education make up 65 percent of the workforce. So a growing number of jobs require some level of higher education. But is there any benefit to your earnings?
A College Board report reveals that the median income for families that are headed by a four-year college graduate is more than double the median income for families that are headed by a high school graduate. Additionally, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that adults who hold bachelor's degrees earn about 64 percent more per year than high school graduates. And those with associate degrees earn about 18 percent more than high school graduates.
Over a lifetime, a college graduate earns over $800,000 more than workers who only have a high school diploma. That amount is substantially more than what you would pay in tuition, student loan interest, and other college-related expenses. So, overall, going to college is likely to be in your favor. But the decision-making does not end there. What you choose to study, as well as the type of institution that you attend, also matters. Some programs lead to more in-demand jobs than others, so it is important to do your research prior to choosing a career path.
Once you know what you want to train for, you also need to decide what type of institution is right for you. Should you attend a career college, community college, or traditional four-year college or university? Many people automatically assume that community or traditional college is the best option, but the reality is that shorter programs at non-traditional institutions (such as career colleges) can quickly prepare you for high-paying jobs. You could be prepared to enter your new career field a lot faster when you opt for a career college. That's especially true if you consider waitlists.
Many institutions do not release their waitlist statistics. But it has been reported that, for popular programs such as nursing, potential students may have to wait for two or more years before they are accepted into their chosen programs at many community colleges and traditional four-year colleges and universities. And it is worth noting that some students will never get off the waitlist; there are colleges and universities that have been found to have waitlists with four to five times more students on them than the schools accept in a year. So there is an opportunity cost to consider between different institutions.
For example, let's say that you want to become a registered nurse and can choose between a traditional four-year college or a career college. Here are two simple scenarios for you to consider:
- Four-year college—It is common for students to wait for two years or more to get into popular programs such as nursing. So let's say that you have to wait two years to get into your state college's nursing program. According to the BLS, as of 2018, a worker with a high school diploma had median earnings of $730 per week. Assuming that is your current education level and you work full-time, you may earn approximately $75,920 over the two years that you are waiting to get into school. Once you get in, you will spend four years training to become a registered nurse, which could cost you an average of $39,920 in tuition and fees based on 2017-2018 data in the College Board report referenced above. So, during the six years that it would take you to obtain your degree, you could potentially earn a net total of $36,000 after paying tuition and fees.
- Career college—Many career colleges have continuous enrollments, and waitlists are not common. It is also likely that you can train to become an RN in three years rather than four. Assuming that you do not have to wait to get in and can complete your training in three years, your total tuition could be approximately $42,000 based on the 2017-2018 average noted in the College Board report. By not sitting on a waitlist and completing your program faster, you are able to begin working as an RN three years sooner than you could in the scenario above. The median hourly wage for an RN in 2018 was $34.48. That means, over the same six-year period, you could earn a net total of $173,190 after paying tuition and fees.
In looking at the two scenarios above, you can see that choosing a career college could actually be a better choice. Although you may pay more for your schooling, you do not have to wait for admission, and you can complete your training sooner. Therefore, you are able to gain three more years of experience, earnings, and seniority in the nursing workforce than if you had chosen a traditional four-year college instead. The calculations used above are simple and based on averages, but it gives you an idea of the factors to consider when determining the opportunity cost of going to college.
Tuition and Fees
Average college tuition fees vary widely across the country and depend on several factors, including what type of institution you attend and where you live. Overall, according to the College Board report, Wyoming offers some of the lowest tuition rates in the country, whereas New Hampshire has some of the highest. When you are looking for the answer to "How much does community college cost?" you will find that California has the lowest tuition and Vermont has the highest. And for in-state students at public four-year colleges, Wyoming is lowest and Vermont is highest.
So finding answers to questions like "How much is college?" or "How much does college cost per year?" involves looking at a few different aspects. That said, below is a breakdown of the national averages for full-time tuition and fees by institution type for the 2017-2018 school year, based on the College Board report:
- Community college (for in-district students)—$3,560
- Traditional four-year college or university (for in-state students)—$9,980
- Traditional four-year college or university (for out-of-state students)—$25,670
- Vocational school—$14,000
When looking at the average cost of college tuition, it is also important to consider that many students who attend traditional four-year colleges and universities take longer than four years to earn their degrees. In fact, completion rates for post-secondary institutions are actually determined based on six years instead of four. It is also worth noting that the six-year completion rates are higher at four-year colleges than they are at community colleges and vocational schools, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Books and Supplies
Determining your college expenses involves a lot more than just considering the amount of tuition and fees. You will also need to find out how much college books cost. The reality is that there is a wide variation in textbook prices, which depend on factors like the course subject matter and the type of book. According to the College Board report, undergraduate students at four-year colleges spent an average of $1,240 on books and supplies during the 2018-2019 school year. Community college students spent $1,440, on average.
Room and Board
When you are trying to figure out how much college will cost, it is especially important to consider other substantial college living expenses like room and board. Of course, if you are able to live with your parents while attending a college that you can commute to, then you can save yourself quite a bit of money. Otherwise, you need to factor in your additional living costs.
The College Board report notes that during the 2017-2018 school year, annual room and board, on average, was as follows:
- Community college (for in-district students)—$8,480
- Traditional four-year college or university (for both in- and out-of-state students)—$10,810
Room and board rates are not available for vocational schools largely because many career colleges do not offer on-campus housing. Additionally, a lot of students choose not to stay on campus when they attend community colleges or traditional colleges or universities. If you would like to (or need to) live off campus, then it may be helpful to look at the rental rates across several major cities.
Below is a list showing the average cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment in 10 different U.S. cities as of 2019, according to data from Numbeo. The first number is the average rental rate within the city center followed by the average rate for out-of-city-center rentals:
Transportation and Travel
As you determine the cost of higher education, you also need to consider if you will have any transportation or college travel expenses. If you are studying away from home, then you need to consider how often you will want to travel back home and what the costs are, such as the cost of mileage and fuel for your car or the price of flights.
Additionally, if you are living or working off campus, then you will want to consider your daily transportation costs. The College Board report says that during the 2018-2019 school year, average transportation expenses for full-time students in community colleges and traditional colleges and universities ranged from $1,050 to $1,800 per year. So as you try to figure out how much college will cost per month, it may be helpful to look at the 2019 average cost of monthly public transportation passes in several major cities, as noted by Numbeo:
- Atlanta ‐ $95.00
- Boston ‐ $84.50
- Dallas ‐ $80.00
- Denver ‐ $114.00
- Indianapolis ‐ $60.00
- Los Angeles ‐ $100.00
- New York ‐ $124.00
- Orlando ‐ $50.00
- Philadelphia ‐ $96.00
- Seattle ‐ $100.00
Budgeting for College
You can see from the sections above that there are several things to consider when determining the cost of college education. Every student faces different circumstances, but you can get an idea of the average college student budget in order to determine a ballpark figure. According to the College Board report, average student budgets for the 2018-2019 school year were as detailed below. (Note that all of the expenses listed are directly college-related and do not include things like food, clothing, and entertainment.)
Total yearly budget for a community college student who commutes to campus—$17,930
- Tuition and fees—20.4 percent
- Room and board—48.2 percent
- Books and supplies—8.0 percent
- Transportation—10.0 percent
- Additional college-related expenses—13.2 percent
Total yearly budget for an in-state four-year college student who lives on campus—$25,890
- Tuition and fees—39.5 percent
- Room and board—43 percent
- Books and supplies—4.8 percent
- Transportation—4.5 percent
- Additional college-related expenses—8.2 percent
Total yearly budget for a student at a private trade school or vocational college who commutes to campus (based partially on the non-tuition expenses of a community college student who commutes since the demographic is similar)—$26,830
- Tuition and fees* (often includes books and supplies)—52.1 percent
- Room and board—32.2 percent
- Transportation—6.7 percent
- Additional school-related expenses—8.8 percent
* Tuition and fees based on 2017-2018 data
Total yearly budget for an out-of-state four-year college student who lives on campus—$41,950
- Tuition and fees—62.7 percent
- Room and board—26.6 percent
- Books and supplies—3.0 percent
- Transportation—2.8 percent
- Additional college-related expenses—5.1 percent
So if you are trying to figure out how much college will cost for four years, then you may need to budget anywhere from $71,720 to $167,800 or possibly more. In contrast, you may only need to budget for between one and three years at a private trade school, vocational college, or technical institute since many programs are more streamlined and accelerated. In that case, your total education budget may amount to about $27,000 for a year, around $54,000 for two years, or about $81,000 for three years. Many career college programs can even be completed in less than one year, which would significantly lower your expenses.
Just remember: The figures above are based on nationwide averages. Your costs may vary since they depend on your own individual situation and educational choices. For further assistance with determining your average cost of college per year, based on your own unique circumstances, you can use an online college expenses calculator. You may want to check out a few different calculators because they can vary from simple to complex in their calculations.
Paying for College
As you uncover the answer to "How much does a college education cost?" you may be wondering how you could possibly afford to go to school. But many students like you can achieve their dreams with financial aid, which can include grants and loans. College Board report data reveals that in the 2018-2019 school year, full-time students who were attending community college received an average of $4,050 in grant aid and tax benefits. And for full-time students who were attending traditional four-year institutions, that average increased to $6,490. The average amount that students needed to cover after applying their grant aid was as follows:
- Community college—$8,270
- Traditional four-year college or university—$14,880
A lot of students choose to cover those additional expenses by applying for financial aid. In fact, as of 2016-2017, anywhere from 83 to 89 percent of first-time, full-time students taking four-year programs were receiving financial aid, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And as of 2018, the average college student debt was $29,800. You can read this article to learn more about your federal student aid and other financial aid options. You may also want to discover ideas for how to make money in college and uncover high-paying student job possibilities that could help you pay your way through school.
Saving for the Future
Whether you are a parent trying to save for your child or a young person preparing for your future, you may be asking questions like "How much will college cost in 10 years?" or "How much will college cost in 20 years?" Unfortunately, those aren't straightforward questions to answer. However, on average, during the decade from 2008 to 2018, tuition costs at traditional four-year colleges and universities (for in-state students) increased at a rate of 3.1 percent per year beyond inflation, says the College Board report. The cumulative rate of inflation during that same time was 16.6 percent, which averages out to 1.66 percent per year.
The College Board report notes that the average tuition and fees paid by in-state students attending four-year colleges and universities in the 2018-2019 school year was $10,230. So if tuition fees continue to increase at an average rate of 3.1 percent per year plus 1.66 percent for inflation, then you could expect to pay more than $16,000 in tuition and fees by the year 2028, in today's dollars. And that amount could increase to almost $26,000 by the year 2038.
Now, of course, this is a simplified calculation based on historic rates and increases. Fortunately, many experts say that the tuition rate increases that have been taking place over the past decade are not sustainable. If prices continue increasing at the current rates, then many colleges and universities may begin to find their registration numbers dropping since a lot of students and families will simply not be able to afford the price tag.
It is hard to say exactly what will happen over the next 15 to 20 years, but it could result in more students choosing online programs or short vocational programs that are offered close to home. As average college expenses continue to increase, it may also result in colleges and universities restructuring the way that they offer courses. They may offer more hybrid courses (which is a blend of online and in-class learning), cut down on electives, or reduce the extra amenities and support facilities on campus. Regardless of what happens, you probably realize the importance of starting to save now. And you may want to discover some helpful tips for the best ways to save for college.
Start Exploring Your Possibilities
If you have college on your mind, then now may be a good time to start seeing what options are out there. By entering your zip code below, you can discover programs that are being offered in your area. And when you find a school of interest, you can easily send an inquiry in order to have all of your questions answered, including those about tuition costs. So get started right now by finding schools near you!