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Figure out the real price of attending a school, and pick the best one for you.

Even knowing that college is expensive, the actual numbers can come as quite a shock. According to The College Board, for the 2020-2021 school year the average in-state four-year public college costs $22,180 per year for tuition, fees and room and board. The average out-of-state four-year public school costs $36,640 per year, and the average cost of a private not-for-profit four-year school is $50,770 yearly. Those big numbers can sometimes be quite surprising.

But comparing the true prices of different schools requires a little bit of investigation. That’s because the sticker price—the number the school publishes—may actually vary quite a bit from what you end up paying, depending on aid like scholarships, grants, and loans. And since financial aid awards can differ from one school to the next, a college with a higher advertised sticker price may end up costing you less than one that technically has a lower price tag. Here’s how to figure it all out.

Breaking down college expenses

The total cost of college is comprised of a few big-ticket things, and some smaller ones as well:

  • Tuition and fees: Tuition is what your classes actually cost, while required fees could include enrollment fees, library fees, and more.
  • Room and board: Often, this number, which includes your dorm room and meal plan, can actually surpass tuition. If you move off-campus, you’ll have some wiggle room here, but unless your family lives in commuting distance, you’ll have to pay for a place to live and food to eat.
  • Books and supplies: This one is pretty self-explanatory. There are definitely ways to save here (buying used books, making the most of the library, etc.) but there’s generally no way to get around it completely.
  • Transportation: If you don’t live on campus, you’ll need to get to school, so account for parking fees, gas, and car repairs or public transportation. If you go to school far from home, you may need to buy plane or train tickets.
  • Smaller expenses: There’s also the day-to-day stuff, like printer ink and coffee with your study group, as well as one-off and sometimes unexpected expenses like a new laptop or phone that you will need to budget for.

What influences the cost

A better education isn’t necessarily more expensive. Lots of factors affect that sticker price, many of which have nothing to do with the quality of the classes, professors, or overall experience.

  • Location: Since the general cost of living is often more expensive in big cities like New York City compared to small towns, going to college there can cost you more. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule—there are plenty of expensive schools in more rural areas—but it’s something to consider if your dream is to go to college in a big metropolis. Different regions of the country also have differently priced schools, with the Northeast generally being most expensive and the South the least.
  • Public vs. private: Private schools almost always have higher sticker prices than public ones. However, some private universities and colleges have big endowments and more generous scholarship programs and aid packages. So although public is usually the cheaper option, in some cases, private schools may end up being the less expensive choice for certain students.
  • In-state vs. out-of-state: While private schools don’t generally charge more to students coming from out of state, when it comes to public colleges and universities, staying within your home state can make a big difference. The College Board reports that the average price for in-state tuition at a public school is $16,460 less than the average price for out-of-state students.

The real costs for you

After receiving acceptance letters to schools, you’ll also get financial aid award letters that detail the grants, scholarships, loans, and/or work-study being offered to you. Scholarships and grants are free money that don’t need to be paid back, but keep in mind that loans will need to be repaid. And work-study, of course, will need to be earned and cost you your time. Our Award Letter Comparison Tool can help you compare these letters easily so you can see what the net costs are for you.

Think about value

When considering which college to go to, the price is a big factor. But you should also consider what you’ll get in return for your money. My College Plan will help you compare not just the costs, but also the typical earnings of students from different programs at different schools, so you can get the best return on your investment.


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