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How Much Does College Cost? Understanding The Average Cost of College

In a lot of ways, college can be as affordable – or as expensive – as you make it. Choose a public school with in-state tuition, and your degree could be a bargain. Choose a notoriously expensive or Ivy League school, on the other hand, and you could pay out the nose.

So, how much does college cost? If you want to know the answer, it helps to know the factors that dictate price and affordability. This guide covers a range of information that can help you determine the financial impact of your college degree. If you’re curious about the average cost of college and how much you’ll actually pay for higher education, keep reading to learn more.

What is the Average Cost of College?

First things first. Before we can prove how much money you’ll need for college, it helps to know the average cost of college tuition. Fortunately, College Board studies tuition figures annually for various types of schools.

Here’s the average cost of tuition nationally for the 2016-2017 school year for each type of school:

  • 4-year public institutions for students enrolled in-state: $9,650
  • 4-year public institutions for students enrolled out-of-state: $24,930
  • 4-year private institutions: $33,480
  • 2-year public institutions for students enrolled in-state: $3,520
  • For-profit institutions: $16,000

Factors that Dictate the Cost of College

As you can see from the figures above, the type of school you choose to attend plays a huge role in your tuition costs. If you attend a community college, you could potentially earn a degree for around $7,000, all-in, while a private or for-profit school will cost substantially more. Obviously, these are important details to know as you try to work higher education into your budget.

Big City vs. Small Town

Whether this seems obvious or not, where your school sits geographically can make a huge difference in college costs. While huge cities can be expensive to live in, many offer affordable college tuition over all. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true – at least sometimes; smaller rural schools occasionally charge higher than average tuition rates.

Of course, the state you live in – and the state where you choose to attend school – can also play a role in how much you’ll pay. As College Board notes, some states have extremely expensive tuition rates on average while others come off as affordable.

According to College Board figures, the most expensive states for tuition were New Hampshire, Vermont, and Pennsylvania last year. Those states reported average in-state tuition for four-year schools at $15,650, $15,446, and $13,884 respectively. Alternatively, some schools featured much more affordable rates for public, in-state schools, the cheapest of which were Wyoming ($5,055), Florida ($6,356), and Montana ($6,409).

In-State vs. Out-of-State

Another important factor to consider is whether you want to attend a public school in your state or travel further away to school. According to College Board figures, the difference this makes in college costs can be substantial.

Just look at the average costs for in-state and out-of-state students nationally. In 2017, the average tuition for in-state students at four-year schools was $9,650. Meanwhile, out of state students paid $24,930 for the same degree and college experience.

This just goes to show that, if you can handle it, you’ll save money by attending an in-state school. Then again, if your goal is attending private school or a for-profit school, then it may not matter as much as tuition should be the same regardless of where you live.

Public vs. Private

Deciding between public and private schools can also impact how much you’ll pay for school. Imagine you’re a student who plans to attend a school in-state to take advantage of in-state tuition discounts. On average, you’ll pay around $9,650 per year in tuition.

Earning the same degree at a private school will theoretically set you back $33,480 per year, on the other hand. It just goes to show what a big difference public vs. private makes, and why you should take these details into account before you commit.

Nonprofit vs. For-Profit

This component of college shopping should be fairly obvious. While nonprofit schools can be expensive in their own right, for-profit schools tend to charge more due to their profit motive. This isn’t an absolute rule and there are exceptions, but you’ll generally pay more for a degree from a for-profit school.

This is especially true among two-year schools, which is the category most for-profits fall into. While it is fairly inexpensive to earn a two-year degree at community college, that same degree can cost 5x more at a for-profit school. Before you choose a for-profit school, make sure to research affordable community-based options in your area.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year

Another school factor to consider has more to do with the type of degree you plan to pursue. If you want to earn a two-year degree, you can typically do so at a more affordable community college. But, if you want to earn a bachelor’s degree, you may need to attend a traditional four-year college.

Still, it’s possible to save money if you want to earn a four-year degree but are willing to attend both types of schools. Some students will complete their basic core education at a community college to save money on tuition, then transfer to a four-year school once they’re ready to jump into a specialized program. If you choose this route, make sure to research ahead of time to confirm your community college credits will, in fact, transfer to the four-year school you hope to attend.

Scholarships and Grants Received

This last section may come across as vague, but it’s also the most important. Just like all the other factors on this list, how much money you receive in scholarships and grants plays a huge role in how much you’ll pay for school.

Keep in mind that many students attend expensive private college while paying very little out of pocket, usually because they earned substantial scholarships or received a boatload of student aid. Before you can know how much you’ll pay for college for sure, you need to figure out how much aid you’ll receive.

The best way to determine how much aid you’ll receive is to fill out a FAFSA form, or a free application for federal student aid. This is the form your school will use to determine how much you’ll pay for school, and how much your EFC (expected family contribution) is.

Beyond student aid, you should also apply for various scholarships and grants that are applicable to your situation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average amount of scholarships and grants afforded to students at all type of schools and from all income levels was $9,740 in 2012- the last year they released figures. Digging deeper into this number, students at public schools received an average of $6,270, while non-profit private school students received $17,040. Students who attended for-profit schools, on the other hand, received an average of $4,990 in aid.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, how much you’ll pay for college is hard to predict until you get there. Either way, it’s possible to make up the difference with student loans. If you’re short on funds or think you will be, the smartest thing to do is to shop around for federal or private student loans. With enough time and research, you can secure a student loan with fair terms and an affordable interest rate.

Also, remember that the type of school you choose matters. While you may dream of earning a degree at a prestigious institution, the high price of attendance may make this option a poor financial investment. Many times, you can earn the same high-quality degree for a lot less money if you’re willing to shop around.