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What Does College Really Cost?

What does college REALLY cost is a loaded question. It depends on many factors: Is the school a community college, two-year or four-year college? Does the student attend part-time or full-time? Is the student in-state, out of state, or regional? Do they live on-campus or off-campus? For this article’s purpose, we will focus on a traditional four-year degree, although only 41% of college students graduate in 4 years.

My daughter was graduating high school in Spring 2020, so she spent Fall 2019 applying to colleges. She wrote her essays, put together her portfolio since she is an art student, and applied using the Common App. We filled out the Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA) to determine our Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Not a pleasant task but a necessary one to receive financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, or student loans.

What Does College Really Cost?
What Does College Really Cost?


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The College Scholarship Service (CSS) is an additional form required by some private colleges. My bad joke about that form is they even need your blood type (not true, but boy, do they need a lot of financial information). All of this is necessary so colleges can create aid packages for the freshman year of college.

The financial assistance package is re-evaluated each year since it depends on the parents’ and student’s income unless the student is independent and not supported or claimed as a dependent by the parents. All this paperwork enables the colleges to prepare their aid offers that reveal what college will cost for that year. Financial aid offers are critical to helping students decide which school is the most affordable, best fit. Keep in mind that college costs typically increase each year, and be sure to verify what aid, such as merit aid, will be carried from year to year as long as the student meets requirements.

Sticker Price vs. Net Price

Colleges have two basic prices: sticker price and net price. The sticker price is simply the cost that is posted on the schools’ marketing materials and website. It varies greatly depending on whether the school is private or public and its location in the country. It includes tuition, room and board, fees, health insurance (unless covered by a private plan). Be sure to add in other costs such as transportation, books, and supplies. This price will generally increase from year to year. Some state schools don’t set their tuition rates until the state budget is determined annually. In general tuition increases each year.

College Costs – 20 Years of Tuition Growth

According to the College Board for the 2020-21 school year, the average sticker price for tuition, room, and board is $22,180 for in-state students at public colleges. For private colleges, it is $50,770. College costs are even higher after accounting for books and supplies, transportation, and supplies.

Source: College Board
Source: College Board

The net price for in-state public colleges is $14,850 and $29,110 for private colleges, after taking into account financial aid, including federal loans. The net price is the price received in your accepted student’s financial aid offer. To obtain the net price subtract grants, scholarships, federal loans, and work-study amounts from the sticker price. Subtract any savings such as 529 accounts that you have earmarked for school costs. The remaining balance is your out-of-pocket amount.

The financial aid package is created especially for your student and determines the cost of attending a particular school. Aid amounts can vary significantly from school to school. It is essential to compare each school’s price with its value regarding offered programs, career path, and potential earnings. At times it is possible to leverage one school aid package against another school aid package for your advantage. It is important to be honest as you may need to show the aid letters. We did this for my daughter and gained additional merit scholarship money for her first-choice school. By working with the school’s financial aid office, we negotiated an additional $5,000 per year in merit money.

What Does College Really Cost After Freshman Year?

Financial information supplied on the FAFSA and CSS is updated every year. Therefore, the cost of college may increase every year. However, merit and grant money may be awarded for four years as long as your student meets specific academic requirements. For instance, the merit scholarship my daughter earned from her college requires her to remain enrolled full-time and maintain a 3.0 GPA. This is evaluated every quarter since her school runs on quarters, not semesters. She will receive her merit scholarship for four years as long as she meets these requirements.

Many colleges and universities require first-year students to live on campus and participate in a full meal plan. Students can save money in subsequent years by changing the meal plan level to fit their schedule and living situation. Student apartments with kitchens are often available. Students can save even more by renting off-campus in most college communities. Be aware some merit scholarships will change if a student lives off-campus. My daughter’s school reduces the scholarships awarded by 30% if a student lives off-campus or is remote.

Some other ways to reduce expenses are to work as a Resident Director (RD) or Resident Advisor (RA). Many colleges pay RDs and RAs with free or heavily discounted room and board for their work. It is an excellent opportunity for students working during the school year anyway to gain free or low-cost housing.

If a textbook is not a new release, students can save by purchasing used editions, PDFs, or renting textbooks. Rentals for the term typically cost much less than buying outright. Great sources for used books are the campus store (they go fast), Amazon.com, Abebooks.com, Ebay.com, and other online retailers. Many of these same places also rent textbooks. It is essential to check which edition and ISBN the professor is using. There are even several free textbook websites. Most students recommend waiting until the first class to learn if the textbook is truly required.

COVID-19 Has Changed What College Costs for the 2020-21 School Year

Some students entering college in Fall 2020 deferred going to college for a year due to campus restrictions and remote-only classes. We know students who changed their first choice for a college before the May decision day to be closer to home due to worries about being far away during stressful and unsure times. Remote college education was definitely a factor this year, much more than before. My son, a senior in college, has had online classes since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis. His university did not discount the tuition price due to remote courses. The school did, however, return a portion of his room and board from the spring semester. He did, of course, save money by living at home for Fall 2020. I’m not sure I saved any money on food!

My daughter was worried about making her money go far enough for four years at a private college. Ironically, she is saving $15K this year due to COVID-19. Her classes are remote, so she is staying at home. She is making the best of it and is diving into her online courses. We hope she will head to campus out of state for the third quarter but recognize she will likely be home for the entire academic year. Her sophomore year will most likely be her first on campus. However, we are grateful for her excellent health and the money she is saving.


Pay off your debt using spare change with ChangEd. ChangEd gives borrowers the ability to link all of their loans and builds a repayment journey that aligns with any budget. This app will help you save in small increments and automate those savings toward your debt regularly to help borrowers save in interest and become debt free sooner.

Final Thoughts on What College Really Costs 

In 2019, 88% of college students didn’t pay full price. Don’t let the high sticker price scare your student from applying if the school is a great fit. Once data from the FAFSA and merit scholarships are considered, a private institution may be less expensive than a state school. While a family and student should be careful not to overextend themselves, keep in mind there are opportunities such as local scholarships, work-study jobs, internships, and co-ops available throughout their college career. Community college is also an affordable route to take. Many community colleges have transfer agreements with four-year universities, which minimize the loss of transfer credits. Lastly, there are some college that are free, but these tend to be very competitive.

When researching for colleges, scholarships, and financial aid, make sure your sources are unbiased. Here are some free sites that I found especially useful:

College Scorecard

U.S. Department of Education College Score Board offers information including graduation rate, average salary after graduation, average yearly cost, acceptance rate, and testing information.

Education Data

Educationdata.org provides all types of information about college costs, including category breakdowns for tuition, books, room and board, additional expenses, and average loan cost. Offers a detailed list of the costs by state.


This loan payment calculator demonstrates monthly payments depending on the interest rate, the amount borrowed, and loan length.

Federal Student Aid

The Federal Government’s website about financial aid provides a wealth of information about loans, work-study, grants, and the aid process. It includes checklists and links to important sites such as the FAFSA application.

College Board

Lengthy but informative report of college pricing trends by The College Board.

Thanks for reading What Does College Really Cost?

You can also read Financial Checklist For The End Of The Year by the same author.

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Christine Seaver is a freelance writer that writes about personal finance, budgeting, and debt. She is a frequent contributor at Dividendpower.org. Christine works as an office manager by day and a cookie baker at night. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.

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One thought on “What Does College Really Cost?

  1. I was a professor at a Big 10 university for 3 years running an NROTC program and teaching ethics. Call it an outsider looking in. It was a real eye opening experience.

    They will sell you a degree, but it is buyer beware: it is up to you to ensure your kid majors in something he/she can get a job in. Evern more important, ensure the salary levels can support a payback if you’re taking loans.

    They will be glad to let you take on $175k of loans getting a Masters degree in urban studies or social work. Then you graduate and find out that starting salaries are below $30k/yr. I can’t tell you how many of those I saw during my time at the U.

    There are a lot of “mandatory fees” that are not disclosed unless you look closely…stadium fees, technology fees. In 2013 when my daughter graduated we were paying about $2k/semester in fees alone.

    Also, if you’ve saved anything, unless you have some sort of fraternal program that gives out scholarships, you probably aren’t going to pick up much if anything from the school.

    I had a wealthy friend who donated some money in my name to a scholarship when I retired. At a reception at the U’s President’s house I heard the U President say; “I don’t mind charging some people more for an education so I can get money to give to others.” Yes, your basic Big 10 socialism at work.

    So, it is buyer beware. I ended up spending about $125k for 4 yrs of a biology/chemisty major. She got into Vet school, so it was worth it. We also had “plan B” in case she didn’t.

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