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  • For the 2021–22 school year, the average sticker price for in-state four-year public college is $22,690, and the average sticker price for private nonprofit four-year schools is $51,690.
  • Many factors influence college costs, including where in the United States the college is located.
  • There is often a difference between the sticker price of a college and what students actually pay.

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 a shock. According to the College Board®, for the 2021–22 school year, the average sticker price for in-state four-year public college is $22,690 per year for tuition, fees, and room and board. The average sticker price for out-of-state four-year public school is $39,510 per year and $51,690 yearly for a private not-for-profit four-year school.

These costs may be surprising but keep in mind they represent the sticker price and not necessarily what you will actually pay. That’s because many students get aid, including grants and scholarships, that minimize the actual price you’ll 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 is comprised of several factors:

  • Tuition and fees: Tuition is what your classes actually cost, while 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 move off-campus, you’ll have more flexibility in controlling these costs, but unless your family lives within commuting distance, you’ll have to pay for housing, utilities, food, and other living expenses.
  • Books and supplies: These costs can sabotage your budget. Books and supplies can add up to more than $1,000 each year and you may not know what you need until you enroll in a course, which can make it hard to budget for. There are ways to minimize costs, including buying used books, renting, sharing materials, or seeing if the instructor has workarounds, such as digital-only materials.
  • Transportation: If you are bringing a car to campus, you’ll have to buy a parking pass whether you are parking overnight or only during the day. You’ll also need to account for gas, registration, and car repairs. If you aren’t bringing a car, then remember to include any public transportation costs to get to campus or navigate around town, as well as 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, as well as unexpected expenses like a new laptop or phone that you will need to budget for.

What influences the average cost of college

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 classes, professors, or overall experience.

  • Location: Since the general cost of living is often more expensive in big cities like New York 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 an effect on school cost, with the Northeast generally being more expensive.
  • Public vs. private: Private schools almost always have higher sticker prices than public ones. For the 2021–22 school year, the College Board reports the average tuition, fees, and room and board for a private nonprofit four-year college is $51,690 versus $39,510 for an out-of-state public four-year college. But the sticker price 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 aid—a stat often found after sticker price—can be a good benchmark of affordability. Use your school’s net price calculator to get a better sense of what you could actually pay.
  • 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 tuition, fees, and room and board in-state tuition at a public school is $16,820 less than the average price for out-of-state students. In addition to room and board costs, transportation may be a larger consideration. Plane tickets to and from for four years, as well as the cost of family visiting you in college, will add up quickly.

The real costs for you

After receiving acceptance letters to schools, you’ll also get financial aid award letters that detail the grants, scholarships, federal loans, and/or work-study being offered to you. Scholarships and grants are free money that don’t need to be paid back, but loans will need to be repaid. 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 help pay for college expenses. Our 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 you want your on-campus life to look like in the future. Will you have or need a car? Do a lot of students live off-campus, and if so, how much would housing cost? Would you be planning to come home regularly for breaks and how much will the cost of these home visits be? Do people tend to hang out on campus for extracurriculars and socializing or will you need to leave campus for these activities? Thinking about your budget on micro and macro levels can help you prepare for the expenses you’ll have when the school year begins.

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.

Make a plan

Making a plan to cover college expenses can be overwhelming. But 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, including talking with your family, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), applying for scholarships, and understanding the options you have for higher education. Here, things to consider:

  • Talk with your family. It can be helpful to have a conversation with your parents or guardians about college payment expectations. They might have money saved in a 529 that will help pay for college or plan to contribute a certain amount to your education. Getting on the same page well 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 helps 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, 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 and recently graduated students will have insight into the real costs of attending college, including extracurriculars, travel, personal expenses, and even costs you may not have thought of.
  • Consider alternatives. Some students decide to go to a two-year 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 avenue might make sense, understand the transfer policies of the schools you are most interested in attending.
  • Know your options. In addition to savings, wages, and 529s, there is financial aid available to you but you have to apply for it. The first—and most well-known—step in paying for college is completing the FAFSA for access to grants, scholarships, and federal student loans. But depending on what college you’re applying to, you may also need to fill out the CSS Profile®. This application is offered by around 250 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, then you should consider private student loans to help bridge any gaps between your financial aid package and what you can pay.

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

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

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