When it comes down to it, the big question on every college-bound student'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 college choices might affect the average cost of college tuition. Since average room and board costs don't vary much by school type (i.e., public and private, in state versus out of state), tuition and fees will give you the best comparison point. From size and location to institution type and your child's academic performance, there are many factors that go into determining the average cost of college tuition.


According to WalletHub'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 of college. Among the top five are Whitewater, WI, Laredo, TX, and Provo, UT. The most expensive college educations can be found in Evanston, IL, Medford, MA, and Ithaca, NY. 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 average cost of college 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.

  • $59,430: most expensive 2018–19 tuition and fees at Columbia University in New York City
  • $5,620: least expensive 2018–19 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 members of the church.

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 in your home state. The cost of in-state public tuition and fees hits $10,230 before room and board, and more than doubles to $21,370 if you factor it in. Compare that to the out-of-state public college tuition of $26,290 ($37,430 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 college 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.

  • $3,400 to $20,000: 2017–18 in-state tuition and fees at public, four-year institutions
  • $10,230: average 2018–19 tuition and fees for an in-state student attending public university
  • $2,290: average 2018–19 tuition and fees for an out-of-state student attending a public university
  • $21,500: average 2018–19 tuition and fees for an out-of-state student attending a ranked public university

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.

  • $56,900: average 2018–19 tuition and fees at one of the 10 most expensive private universities
  • $11,000: average 2018–19 tuition and fees at one of the least expensive private colleges
  • $35,830: average 2018–19 tuition and fees at a private four-year university

Financial Aid and Scholarship Opportunities

Students who have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) will get a better picture of what their annual cost of college will be when they receive financial aid packages. After being accepted, schools will send out award letters that break down how much federal student aid you will receive in the form of scholarships, grants, work-study and federal student loan amounts. Since many schools award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, you may receive more financial aid by completing your FAFSA as early as possible after October 1 each year.

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

  • $21,549 (in current dollars): average combined amount of federal, state/local and institutional grants, as well as student loans, that students received in 2017–18 at public four-year universities
  • $36,517 (in current dollars): average combined amount of federal, state/local and institutional grants, as well as student loans, that students received in 2017–18 at private nonprofit four-year universities

As you can see, when it comes to figuring out your average annual cost of college tuition, there are many variables. Starting off with a lower priced, public institution that's in your home state 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 trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover Student Loans.

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