Cost of College Education - Average Annual Cost of College

Average Annual Cost of College

When it comes down to it, the big question on every college-bound family's mind is: how much is college going to cost? The answer to that question varies from hundreds of thousands of dollars to nothing at all. Somewhere in the middle lies the real answer for the majority of college students.

Take a look at some data to get a sense of how your teen's college choices might affect the average annual cost of college. From size and location to institution type and your child's academic performance, there are many factors that go into determining college cost.

Big City vs. Small Town

According to WalletHub's "2016's Best College Towns and Cities in America" report, there are some cities in the nation that are notorious for having a lower average cost for a higher education. Among the top five are Grand Forks, ND, Boca Raton, FL and Fresno, CA. The most expensive college educations can be found in Providence, RI, Waltham, MA and Medford, MA. But the truth is you'll find a mix of college costs wherever you go.

Choosing a rural area might seem like it could save you money since cost of living is usually lower than in a big city, but keep in mind that "college towns" tend to rely on income generated by the student population, so rent or local convenience stores might be pricey.

Region-wise, colleges in the middle states, New England, and the Midwest generally have higher tuition than those in the West, South and Southwest, according to data compiled by The College Board. Of course, despite such data, remember there are always exceptions. You could very well find an affordable school in a very expensive city or pricey tuition in a rural town with a low cost of living.

  • $57,208: most expensive 2017-18 tuition and fees — Columbia University in New York City
  • $5,460: least expensive 2017-18 tuition and fees — at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. The school, led by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, charges twice as much for students who are not Mormon.

In-State vs. Out-of-State

Location really makes the most difference in the price tag of an education if you decide to go to school close to home. With room and board charges, the cost hits $20,090. Compare that to the out-of-state public college tuition of $24,930 ($35,370 with room and board), and you can see an advantage to sticking with your own state's university system.

Then again, if you plan to go the private colleges route, there isn't usually a different price for in-state versus out-of-state students. However, once you start factoring in secondary costs (like what it will cost to visit home), choosing a school across the country versus one that is nearby or in a neighboring state could add a couple of thousand dollars per year in airfare alone onto your expenses.

  • $4,150 to more than $18,500 annually: 2016-17 price range for in-state tuition and fees at public, four-year institutions
  • $9,650: average cost of 2016-17 tuition and fees for an in-state student attending public university
  • $24,930: average cost of 2016-17 tuition and fees for an out-of-state student attending a public university
  • $41,246: the average cost of 2016-17 tuition and fees for an out-of-state student attending one of the 10 most expensive public universities

College Type

When comparing sticker prices, private schools will almost always have a higher cost than public schools. However sticker prices can be misleading. Very rarely do most college students — regardless of school — pay the entire tuition price out of pocket. In fact, many private institutions offer generous merit scholarships and aid packages to those who qualify. Although going with a public, in-state institution will usually mean a less expensive education, it's not necessarily the case for every student.

  • $54,817 in tuition and fees: average cost (paying in full) of attending one of the 10 most expensive private universities in 2017-18
  • $10,624 in tuition and fees: average cost (paying in full) of attending one of the least expensive private colleges in 2017-18
  • $33,480: average cost of tuition and fees at a private four-year university in 2016-17

Financial Aid and Scholarship Opportunities

Families don't really get a true picture of what their annual cost of college will be until they receive financial aid packages. After you have been accepted, schools will send out award letters that break down how much your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be after financial aid is applied. This represents the out-of-pocket expense that you're expected to pay or borrow to cover what's left over after scholarships, grants, work-study and federal student loan amounts. These types of aid can be awarded to you by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Since many schools award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, you may receive more financial aid by completing your FAFSA on time and ensuring that all of the information is accurate.

However, the FAFSA is not the only way to receive money for college. To meet your EFC, you can also apply for additional scholarships and grants or look into private student loans. Visit this free Scholarship Search tool to get started finding need or merit-based scholarships.

  • $20,857 (in current dollars): average combined amount of federal, state/local and institutional grants, as well as student loans, that students received in 2014-15 at public four-year universities
  • $34,516 (in current dollars): average combined amount of federal, state/local and institutional grants, as well as student loans, that students received in 2014-15 at private nonprofit four-year universities

As you can see, when it comes to figuring out your average annual cost of college, there are many variables. Starting off with a lower priced, public institution that's close to home and commuting instead of dorming can help, especially if family financial need is high. However, take the time to compare costs for other schools on your wish list as well. You might just be surprised at what the bottom line costs turn out to be.


FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.

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