Why is college so expensive? A look at the costs
October 20, 2022 5 min read
There’s no doubt about it: College can be expensive. Average college tuition and fees alone can range from $3,800 for a two-year public college to upward of $38,000 for a four-year private college. And that doesn’t include other college costs like housing, books and other living expenses.
Keep reading to find out more about the different factors that affect college costs and some options to explore that might help make college more affordable.
- College costs can include tuition, fees, room and board, transportation and textbooks.
- College costs vary widely and depend on many factors, like public versus private colleges, in-state versus out-of-state tuition, and what kind of degree you’re seeking.
- Financial aid, grants, scholarships and student loans may be available to help pay for college.
- There are many ways to save for college, including 529 plans, Coverdell education savings accounts and prepaid tuition plans.
How expensive is college?
College costs in the U.S. have nearly tripled over the past 40 years. And the cost of attending college can still vary depending on many factors, including whether you:
- Attend a public or private college
- Attend an in-state or out-of-state college
- Get an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree
- Live at home or on campus
- Live alone or with roommates
While tuition is often one of the main costs of attending college, it’s important to remember that college costs might also include things like fees, housing, food, books and more. And that’s not to mention normal life expenses for things like clothes, doctor visits and having fun.
For the 2021-2022 academic year, the College Board estimated the total annual cost of college was:
- $18,830 for a two-year public college
- $27,330 for a four-year public in-state college
- $44,150 for a four-year public out-of-state college
- $55,800 for a four-year private nonprofit college
For advanced degrees, the College Board estimated that the annual cost was:
- $19,980 for a master’s degree at a four-year public college
- $42,470 for a master’s degree at a four-year private nonprofit college
- $24,120 for a doctoral degree at a four-year public college
- $61,360 for a doctoral degree at a four-year private nonprofit college
If your head is spinning looking at all those big numbers, here’s a breakdown of what can make up these college costs.
Tuition and fees vary depending on the college you attend and the kind of degree you’re seeking. For 2021-2022, the College Board estimated annual tuition and fees averaged:
- $3,800 for a two-year public college
- $10,740 for a four-year public in-state college
- $27,560 for a four-year public out-of-state college
- $38,070 for a four-year private nonprofit college
Room and board can be one of the most expensive college costs. The College Board estimated annual housing costs averaged:
- $9,330 for a two-year public college
- $11,950 for public or private four-year in-state colleges
- $13,620 for a four-year private nonprofit college
But there are a lot of different options to consider when it comes to your living situation in college. And the cost might differ depending on what you decide. So it’s a good idea to think through all the factors that might affect your room and board costs.
Do you plan to live at home, on campus or off campus? Will you live alone or with roommates? Will you have to pay for any utilities? And what about commuting costs? Answering these questions can help you figure out how much to budget for room and board throughout college.
You should also check the college’s rules. Living off campus might not be an option for first-year students at some colleges, for example.
Textbooks and other supplies
In the 2020-2021 academic year, the College Board estimates that college students spent an average of about $1,200-$1,400 on books and other supplies.
That might seem like a lot, but college textbooks can be pricey. And specialty classes in art, music or sports could mean additional supplies and equipment.
One way you might be able to save money in college is by buying used books, renting books or selling your books when you’re done with them.
College costs might include fees on top of tuition, including:
- Fees for courses that use a lab, studio space or take field trips
- Campus parking passes
- Dues for sports, extracurricular activities, clubs and fraternities or sororities
- Study abroad programs
Why are colleges so expensive?
College costs have steadily increased over the past several years. Since the 2011-2012 academic year, the College Board estimates tuition and fees alone have increased:
- 7% for two-year public colleges
- 9% for four-year public colleges
- 14% for four-year private nonprofit colleges
These increases could be due in part to things like growing demand and decreasing state funds. There are also the rising costs of hiring staff, recruiting students, renovating or constructing campus facilities, and more.
Why are private colleges so expensive?
Unlike public colleges, private colleges don’t get money from the federal government to help subsidize student costs. Most of their funding comes through tuition and private donations.
That means that tuition, fees, housing and other costs of attending a private college can be higher than public colleges.
The total cost of attending a private nonprofit college for 2021-2022 averaged $28,470 more than a public in-state school and $11,650 more than a public out-of-state school.
Why are out-of-state public colleges so expensive?
In the state where you live, you or your family likely pay taxes that help fund the public colleges in your state. So if you go to a public college in a state where you don’t live and pay taxes, you might have to pay more in tuition.
And not all out-of-state public schools are priced the same. A state’s size, population, number of schools, cost of living and more can also affect the cost of in-state tuition.
In the 2021-2022 academic year, tuition and fees averaged $16,820 more at out-of-state public schools versus in-state public schools. But other expenses—like room and board—were about the same.
Making college more affordable
College can be a huge expense. And figuring out how to pay for college isn’t always easy. Here are a few things that might help make college more affordable:
- Get a head start at less expensive schools. Before transferring to a four-year college, you could earn college credits at a community college. Or you could even take dual-enrollment classes in high school to earn college credits early.
- Look for money you don’t have to repay. Before you take out any student loans, it’s a good idea to explore financial aid, grants and scholarships. You can start by applying for federal student aid online. You might want to talk to your chosen school about additional aid, too. There might also be grants and scholarships available through places like your school, employer, nonprofits and private organizations.
- Work while you’re in college. You could consider a part-time job, paid internship or federal work-study program to help with college costs.
- Start saving early. There are lots of college savings options to explore. Some ways to save for college include 529 plans, Coverdell education savings accounts and prepaid tuition plans.
Why college is so expensive in a nutshell
College can be expensive. But it might also be a worthwhile investment in your future. And before you make any decisions about college, it’s important to understand the details of how much college costs and how you might pay for it.
College costs can vary widely depending on whether the college is public or private, in state or out of state, two years or four years, and undergraduate or graduate level.
There are also options out there that might help you pay for college, including ones you don’t have to repay. So before taking out any loans, it’s a good idea to explore things like financial aid, grants and scholarships.
And if you’re a current college student looking for a credit card, there are student credit cards that let you earn unlimited rewards and kick-start your credit while you’re in school. When used responsibly, you can use a student card to build credit, which could help with long-term goals like buying your own home.