How Much Does a College Education Cost?

— U.S. Department of Education
Updated on Jun 1, 2009

Many adults overestimate the cost of college or believe that all schools are expensive. For example, a 1996 survey found that members of the public overestimated the tuition of both public two- and four-year colleges by two to three times the actual average tuition, a mistake of more than $3,000.

Although some colleges are expensive, costs vary from institution to institution. In addition, the availability of financial aid -- money available from various sources to help students pay for college -- can make even an expensive college affordable for a qualified student.

College Costs

The basic costs of college are tuition, fees, and other expenses:


Tuition is the amount of money that colleges charge for instruction and for the use of some facilities, such as libraries. Tuition can range from a few hundred dollars per year to more than $30,000. The least costly option for postsecondary education is typically a local community college where the average tuition and fees are under $1,700 per year. There are also many four-year colleges and universities that are relatively inexpensive. For example, Chart 4 shows that a little more than half of the students who attend four-year colleges go to institutions that charge less than $4,000 in tuition and fees. This occurs because about 66 percent of the students who attend four-year colleges attend public institutions which have lower tuition rates than those of private institutions.

Distribution of Students at Four-Year Colleges by the Amount of Tuition and Fees Charged


Fees are charges (usually small) that cover costs generally not associated with the student's course load, such as costs of some athletic activities, student activities, clubs, and special events.

Other Expenses

Besides tuition and fees, students at many colleges and universities pay for room, board, books, supplies, transportation, and other miscellaneous costs. "Room and board" refers to the cost of housing and food. Typical college costs are listed in Chart 5 below.


Typical College Costs

Miscellaneous Expenses

Tuition at Public and Private Colleges

Chart 6 shows the average tuition and fees by students at four different types of colleges in school year 1998-99.

Public Institutions

Over three-quarters of all students in two-and four-year colleges attend state or other public colleges. Because these schools receive a large proportion of their budgets from state or local government, they can charge students who live in that state (in-state students) relatively low tuition. Students from other states (out-of-state students) usually pay higher tuition rates.

In 1998-99, in-state students attending public four-year colleges faced an average tuition and fees of $3,243 per year. Resident students at public two-year colleges faced average tuition and fees of $1,633 per year in 1998-99. Tuition and fees for out-of-state students at four-year public institutions averaged $8,417 and $4,508 at two-year public institutions.

When the costs of room, board, books, supplies, transportation, and other personal expenses are added to tuition and fees, the average in-state total cost of attending a public four-year college was $10,458 in 1998-99. Since many students who attend two-year public schools live at home, the average total cost of attending a two-year public college in 1998-99 was $6,445. This includes the cost of tuition, fees, books, supplies, transportation, and other personal expenses for a commuter student.

Private Institutions

Private (sometimes called "independent") institutions charge the same tuition for both in-state and out-of-state students. Private college tuitions tend to be higher than those of public colleges because private schools receive less financial support from states and local governments.

Most private colleges are "non-profit." Other private postsecondary schools -- mostly vocational and trade schools -- are "proprietary." Such institutions are legally permitted to make a profit. Students at private colleges in 1998-99 faced an average tuition and fees of $14,508 per year at four-year colleges and $7,333 per year at two-year non-profit colleges.

When the costs of room, board, books, supplies, transportation, and other personal expenses are added to tuition and fees, the average total cost of attending a private four-year college was $22,533. If these same kinds of costs are added to the tuition and fees of a two-year private college, the average total cost of attending such a school was $14,222.

Average Tuition and Fees by Type of College, School Year 1998-99

Future College Costs

By the time your child is ready to attend college, the tuition, fees, and costs of room, board, and other expenses will be larger than the amounts discussed in this handbook. Because there are many factors that affect the costs of a college education, it is impossible to know exactly how much colleges will charge when your child is ready to enroll. Be cautious when people tell you a particular amount; no one can be sure how much costs will change over time. In addition, as college costs increase, the amount of money you earn, and thus the amount you will have available to pay for college, will also rise.

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