Understanding the Cost of College

College cost can vary depending on which type of school you attend and how much aid you're eligible for.

On a similar note...
On a similar note...
Understanding the Cost of College

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

Knowing your school expenses can give you a better sense of your potential student loan burden. And when you are better informed about the cost of college and your debt, you'll be better prepared to pay down student loans faster.

We’ve laid out the average costs of several types of colleges, the amount you’re likely to pay and how to pay for college so you graduate without overwhelming student loan debt.

How much does college cost?

College prices typically go up each year. From the 2018-19 school year to 2019-20, average tuition and room and board at public undergraduate institutions rose 2.6%, according to the research from the College Board.

And the type of school you choose makes a big difference in the amount you pay. Here’s the average cost of colleges for the 2019-20 academic year, according to the College Board.

  • Public two-year in-district: $12,720

  • Public four-year in-state: $21,950

  • Public four-year out-of-state: $38,330

  • Private nonprofit four-year: $49,870

How much will I end up paying on average?

Those numbers represent the school's "sticker price," but it’s unlikely you’ll pay the total amount for the school you choose. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to receive financial aid that could cut the cost.

The FAFSA determines the amount of money your family can provide to pay for college. It also qualifies you for federal, state and school grants, which you don’t need to pay back; federal student loans; and work-study to cover the rest of the cost.

You’ll get certain types of financial aid, including Pell Grants and subsidized federal loans, if you have especially high financial need, which is calculated by subtracting your expected family contribution from the school’s cost of attendance. Prioritize applying to colleges that pledge to meet your full financial need. Check the schools’ websites or call their financial aid offices to find out if they do.

What will particular schools cost me?

Net price can vary widely from school to school. Each college or university has a net price calculator on its website, which will estimate how much you’ll pay based on your financial profile.

You can expect to cover the net price with out-of-pocket funds or student loans — and remember, it’s only for one year, so multiply that number by four to see your minimum total cost. Graduating on time will keep you from having to borrow more — only 58% of students who started college in fall 2012 graduated within six years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Additional tools can help you compare net prices among colleges. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard includes links to schools’ net price calculators and has data on average annual cost, graduation rate and typical monthly student loan payment.

How should I pay for college?

Completing the FAFSA is your first step toward making college more affordable. For the 2020-21 school year, the deadline to submit your FAFSA is June 30, 2021. You can make corrections though September 11, 2021.

Exhaust grants and scholarships from the federal government, your state and your college before turning to student loans — and even then, max out your federal student loan options before turning to private student loans. There are several benefits to federal student loans, including the ability to borrow without credit history and access to flexible payback options.

Find ways to save with NerdWallet

Really get to know your money and find cash you can put aside and grow.