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  • For the 2022-23 school year, the average sticker price for in-state, four-year public college is $23,250. That number jumps to $53,430 for private, nonprofit four-year schools.
  • Many factors influence college costs in the United States, including where the college is located.
  • There is often a difference between the sticker price of a college and what students actually pay.

Figuring out the real price of attending a school

We all know that college is expensive, but the actual numbers can come as a shock. For the 2022-23 academic year, the average sticker price for in-state, four-year public college is $23,250 per year, according to the College Board®. That includes tuition, fees, and room and board. The numbers are even higher for out-of-state colleges and private schools.

  In-state, four-year public college Out-of-state, four-year public college Private, nonprofit four-year college
Average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board $23,250 $40,550 $53,430
Source: College Board

These costs may be surprising, but keep in mind that they represent the sticker price—not necessarily what you’ll actually pay. That’s because many students get aid, including grants and scholarships, that minimize what they end up paying for tuition. 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 has a lower price tag. Here’s how to figure it all out.

Breaking down college expenses

The total cost of college can include:

  • Tuition and fees: Tuition is what your classes actually cost. Required fees could include enrollment fees, library fees, and facilities fees.
  • Room and board: This number, which includes your dorm room and meal plan, can sometimes surpass tuition. If you live off-campus, you’ll have more flexibility in controlling these costs. Unless your family lives within commuting distance, you’ll have to pay for housing, utilities, food, and other living expenses.
  • Books and supplies: Books and supplies can add upwards of $1,200 to your college budget each year, according to the College Board. You may not know what you’ll need until you enroll in a course, which can make it hard to budget. There are ways to minimize costs, including buying used books, renting or sharing materials, or seeing if the instructor offers digital materials.
  • Transportation: If you’re bringing a car to college, you’ll likely have to buy a parking pass. You’ll also need to account for gas, registration, and car repairs. If you aren’t bringing a car, then remember to budget for public transportation costs to get to campus or navigate around town. And don’t forget about plane or train tickets to get to and from home.
  • Personal expenses: There’s also the day-to-day stuff, like coffee with your study group or a grocery store run. You’ll also want to budget for unexpected expenses. That can include everything from a new laptop or phone to a surprise parking ticket.

Understanding what influences the average cost of college

Lots of factors affect average college tuition prices. It’s also important to remember that a better education isn’t necessarily more expensive. The sticker price may have nothing to do with the quality of classes, professors, or your overall experience.

  • Location: Since the general cost of living is often higher in big cities, 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 certainly something to consider. Different regions of the country also have an effect on school costs, with the Northeast generally being more expensive, according to the Education Data Initiative.
  • Public versus private: Private schools almost always have higher sticker prices than public ones, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story. Financial aid that includes institutional grants and scholarships can sometimes make a private school cheaper than a public one. Comparing average costs after factoring in aid can be a good benchmark of affordability.
  • In-state versus out-of-state: When it comes to public colleges and universities, staying within your home state can make a big difference. The average sticker price for an out-of-state, four-year public college is almost two times higher than its in-state counterpart, according to the College Board. Transportation may be another consideration. Plane tickets to and from school for four years, as well as the cost of family visiting you in college, could add up quickly.

Looking at the real costs

After receiving acceptance letters to schools, you’ll also get financial aid award letters that detail the grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal loans being offered to you. Scholarships and grants provide free money that doesn’t need to be paid back, but loans do. Work-study is not guaranteed work—you have to find a qualifying job—but those earnings are paid directly to you and can be used to cover college expenses. An award letter comparison tool can help you compare these letters easily so you can see what each college will cost you.

When you’re comparing costs, it can also be helpful to think about what your campus life will look like. Consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Will you have or need a car?
  • Do a lot of students live off-campus? If so, how much would housing cost?
  • Would you be planning to come home regularly for breaks? If so, roughly how much will this cost?
  • Do your school’s dining services close on the weekend? If so, how much would groceries or take-out cost?
  • Do people tend to hang out on campus for extracurriculars and socializing, or will you need to leave campus for these activities?

Thinking about value

No matter where you decide to go to college, you should consider what you’ll get in return for your money. This goes hand in hand with choosing a major. The goal is to select an area of study that can lead to a career with adequate earning potential. You’ll also want to be doing work you enjoy.

Making a plan

Taking things step by step can simplify the process. As you work on your college applications, simultaneously make a plan for how to cover college costs.

  • Talk with your family: It can be helpful to have a conversation with your parents or guardians about college payment expectations. They may have money saved in a 529 plan that can help pay for college, or they might plan to contribute a certain amount to your education. Getting on the same page before college admissions season can alleviate some of the stress that comes with choosing and applying to schools.
  • Check with your high school counselor: Your counselor could have information about events or workshops that help families figure out how to pay for college. They are worth attending, even if you’re in your first or second year of high school. Knowing what options you have, the forms to fill out, and how financial aid works can help you feel prepared when it’s time to apply.
  • Talk with current students and students who have graduated: There’s no one better for relevant advice than students who have gone through the process. Everyone’s financial aid package is different, but current students and recent grads will have insights into the real costs of attending college. That includes extracurriculars, travel, personal expenses, and costs you may not have thought of.
  • Consider alternatives: Some students decide to start at a community college before transferring to a four-year school. This can help you save money on tuition, as well as room and board if you live at home. If this sounds appealing, get clear on the transfer policies of the schools you are most interested in attending.
  • Know your options: In addition to college savings, there may also be financial aid available to you—but you have to apply for it. The first step in paying for college is completing the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which can unlock grants, scholarships, and federal student loans. Depending on the colleges you’re applying to, you may also need to fill out the CSS Profile®. This application is offered by hundreds of colleges and can help you access institutional aid and grants that are not available through the FAFSA alone. You should also look for private scholarships before and during college since this is free money that doesn’t have to be paid back. If you still need help covering college costs, you can look into private student loans to help bridge any gaps between your financial aid package and what you can pay.

College Board® and CSS Profile® are trademarks registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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