How Much Does College Cost?

College can cost more than $35,000 a year for on-campus students. Find tuition rates, average financial aid, and the cost of college over time in our guide.
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Data Summary

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    The average cost for one year of college tuition and fees at four-year schools in 2020-2021 was $19,020.Go to footnote [1]
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    The average total cost for a year of college at a four-year school -- including tuition and fees, on-campus room and board, books, supplies, and other expenses -- was $35,551.Footnote [1] That's roughly $142,000 over the course of four years.
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    As of 2019-2020, the average net price -- or total cost after financial aid -- for a year of college ranged from $14,000-$28,000 at four-year schools.Go to footnote [2]
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    College tuition has tripled in the past 50 years (1970-2020). It more than doubled in the past 30 years (1990-2020).Go to footnote [3]
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    In 2020-2021, the average tuition and fees among four-year public colleges was $9,375. At four-year private nonprofit schools, it was $35,852.Footnote [3]
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    In 2020-2021, tuition at two-year public colleges, on average, cost $3,501.Footnote [3]

Over the decades, the price tag of getting a college degree has skyrocketed. Concerns over the cost of college may be contributing to sliding enrollment rates. While most Americans surveyed by BestColleges valued alternatives to college as a viable educational option, 60% of business leaders said a college degree is important to long-term success.

Several factors can make your college education more or less expensive. Knowing them can help you plan your education. We collected college cost statistics, from average yearly tuition rates to pricing for textbooks and dorms, plus how expenses differ across states and school types.

Table of Contents

Average Cost of College

When considering the cost of college, the first expense that may come to mind is tuition. Tuition is what students pay for a school's curriculum. Schools typically report tuition with other required fees for student services.

Average College Tuition

In 2020-2021, private nonprofit schools had the highest tuition compared to other school types. The average tuition at a four-year private nonprofit school was about 1.6 times that of a four-year public school. Two-year public colleges had the least expensive tuition.

Average College Tuition and Fees 2020-2021
School Type Average Annual Tuition and Required Fees
Four-Year Public $9,375
Four-Year Private Nonprofit $35,852
Four-Year Private For-Profit $15,442
Two-Year Public $3,501
Two-Year Private Nonprofit $16,420
Two-Year Private For-Profit $15,080

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Average Total Cost of College

There's more to the cost of college than tuition alone. The all-in cost of college includes tuition and fees, textbooks and supplies, college dorm or off-campus living expenses, and other student expenses like transportation.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports the average total cost of attending college for first-time undergrads based on students' living arrangements: if they live on campus, off campus, or off campus with family.

Four-year schools are generally more expensive than two-year schools. At four-year schools, a year of total college expenses for students living on campus amounts to $35,551, or about $142,000 over four years. Two-year schools cost on-campus students an average of $16,488 per year, or roughly $33,000 over two years.

Source: NCES


Source: NCES

Average Net Cost of College

The sum of tuition and other college expenses still doesn't tell the whole story of what students pay for school. That's because students can take advantage of scholarships and grants to subsidize the cost of college.

The table below represents the average cost of college minus aid from scholarships or grants across all income levels. Dollar amounts are in 2020-2021 constant dollars.

(Keep in mind the amount of aid students receive depends on their income level. We break down average aid amounts later in our report.)

Average Net Cost of College 2019-2020
School Type Average Net Cost for One Year of College
Four-Year Public $14,180
Four-Year Private Nonprofit $28,050
Four-Year Private For-Profit $23,150
Two-Year Public $7,630
Two-Year Private Nonprofit $19,980
Two-Year Private For-Profit $22,180

Source: NCES

Cost of College Over Time

Even accounting for inflation, college costs have more than doubled since the sixties. From 1970 to 2020, the total price tag for college has increased by 138%, or 2.4 times.

The chart below represents the rising cost of a year of college — including tuition, fees, room, and board — in constant 2020-2021 dollars.

Source: NCES

Cost of College Over the Past 50 Years

In the 50 years between the 1970-1971 and 2020-2021 school years:Footnote [3]

  • Average tuition and fees tripled, from $4,558 a year to $13,677.
  • Room and board almost doubled, increasing by 91.4%.
  • The most dramatic tuition hike occurred among four-year public schools, where the average cost of tuition increased almost 260%, from $2,608 to $9,375.

College Expenses in the Past Decade

In the past decade, the cost of college has generally continued to increase.Footnote [3]

  • In the 10 years from 2010-11 to 2020-2021, the average cost of college tuition, fees, room, and board across all schools increased 17.8% in constant dollars.
  • Average tuition and fees across all schools increased 20%, from $11,397 to $13,677.
  • Average tuition and fees declined at private for-profit schools, from $16,353 to $15,407.

Cost of College by School Type

The cost of college varies by school type, like public vs. private and two-year vs. four-year schools. In this section, we dig into cost differences by school category.

Public College Tuition: In-State vs. Out-of-State

Public colleges and universities receive funding from state taxpayers. This funding allows public colleges to offer lower tuition rates than private institutions. It also means that lower rates only apply to students who are state residents, resulting in a steep difference between in-state vs. out-of-state tuition.

On average, out-of-state tuition at four-year public colleges is close to three times that of in-state tuition.Go to footnote [4]

U.S. Average Public College Annual Tuition for In-State and Out-of-State Students in 2019-2020
School Type In-State Student Out-of-State Student
Two-Year Public Institution $3,377 $8,126
Four-Year Public Institution $9,349 $27,023

Source: NCES

Private College Tuition: Nonprofit vs. For-Profit College

Unlike public colleges, private schools earn money primarily through tuition and donors. But there are different types of private colleges. Private nonprofit schools invest the money they receive into the school's offerings. Private for-profit schools give earnings to investors.

On average, private for-profit colleges have lower tuition rates. However, private nonprofit institutions generally award much higher grants to students. These schools are also more likely to award aid to students. About 82% of students attending private nonprofit schools receive an institutional grant, compared to just 24% of students at private for-profit schools.

Source: NCES

Cost of Ivy League and Other Elite Colleges

Some of the nation's most selective and esteemed institutions, such as Ivy League and other elite schools, have the highest tuition rates. At the same time, these schools often provide large financial aid packages.

2020-2021 Average Annual Costs and Net Price of Ivy League and Other Select Top Schools for Full-Time Beginning Undergraduates
Ivy League School Average Tuition and Fees Average Total Cost (On-Campus) Average Grant or Scholarship Aid Awarded Average Net Price After Aid
Amherst College $60,430 $79,140 $58,644 $18,809
Brown University $60,696 $80,448 $55,420 $25,028
Columbia University $61,671 $77,603 $57,726 $12,411
Cornell University $59,282 $78,992 $52,674 $24,262
Dartmouth College $60,117 $80,184 $56,106 $24,078
Duke University $57,934 $78,828 $50,731 $27,297
Harvard University $54,002 $78,940 $59,840 $13,910
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $53,450 $56,462 $32,562 $30,958
Princeton University $48,502 $68,044 $47,136 $20,908
Stanford University $55,473 $76,713 $56,211 $14,402
University of Pennsylvania $60,042 $81,110 $50,778 $14,578
Yale University $59,950 $82,170 $58,715 $20,605

Source: NCES College Navigator Database

Average Cost of Online College

When comparing the costs of online and on-campus programs, distance learners may escape some fees related to on-campus services. However, online learners usually incur many of the same expenses on-campus learners and may even have additional fees to consider, such as those related to technology.

Net Price of Online College

There are 58 degree-conferring distance-learning-only institutions in the NCES' College Navigator database. Of those, 33 reported net price for full-time first-year undergraduate students in 2020-2021.

Of those 33 reporting distance-learning-only schools:

  • The average net price for full-time first-year undergraduate students was $15,467.
  • Most institutions conferred both bachelor's and associate's degrees.
  • As with in-person schools, public schools were less expensive than private schools, on average.
  • Unlike in-person colleges, online private for-profit schools were more expensive than online private nonprofit schools, on average.

Source: NCES College Navigator Database

Fees for Online College

Online programs' true cost may include additional fees for technology, tech support infrastructure, and online course design.

A 2016 survey of 197 colleges found:Go to footnote [5]

  • Three-quarters of colleges charged the same tuition for distance learning and on-campus courses.
  • About half (53.6%) of distance-learning-only students were exempt from paying some student fees, e.g. for parking, recreation center access, health center access, etc.
  • However, when additional fees were added, more than half (54.2%) of distance-learning students were charged more than on-campus students.

Average Cost of College by State

As of 2019-20, states with the highest tuition for state residents at four-year public colleges were in the Northeast and Midwest. These states' average tuition rates were roughly 2-4 times more expensive than the cheapest states' average tuition.

States with the highest average in-state public school tuition:

  1. Vermont ($17,083)
  2. New Hampshire ($16,679)
  3. Pennsylvania ($15,565)
  4. Illinois ($14,455)
  5. New Jersey ($14,360)

States with the lowest average in-state public school tuition:

  1. Florida ($4,463)
  2. Wyoming ($4,747)
  3. Washington, D.C. ($6,020)
  4. Nevada ($6,023)
  5. Utah ($6,700)

States with the highest average cost for one year of college at four-year private schools (including tuition, fees, room, and board) were:

  1. Massachusetts ($64,196)
  2. Vermont ($61,021)
  3. Washington, D.C. ($60,830)
  4. Rhode Island ($59,321)
  5. Maryland ($58,737)

Average Yearly Public School Undergraduate Tuition and Fees by State, 2019-2020

Source: NCES

College Expenses Beyond Tuition

Students have lives outside of the classroom, so they have expenses beyond just tuition. Each college student's budget breakdown depends on their individual circumstances, but here's the data behind typical college costs.

Cost of Room & Board in College

Room and board refers to the cost of on-campus housing (room) plus a meal plan (board).

Across all institutions in 2020-21, the average cost to live in dorms for one school year was $6,897. The average board cost was $5,335.

Average College Room and Board Costs by School Type
School Type 2020-21 Average Room and Board Cost
All Public $11,737
Four-Year Public $11,963
Two-Year Public $8,056
All Private $13,476
Four-Year Private $13,488
Two-Year Private $10,193

Source: NCES

Living Off-Campus

Depending on where you live, it could be cheaper or costlier to rent an apartment off campus. National data suggests that, on average, the costs are pretty similar. The average difference between living on and off campus is less than $200 a year.

However, students living with family off campus (i.e., not paying for their own housing) save close to $11,000 a year on average.

The average total cost for a student attending a four-year college in their first year is:Footnote [1]

  • $35,551 to live on campus
  • $35,392 to live off campus
  • $24,587 to live off campus with family

Cost of College Textbooks and Supplies

Books and supplies refers to college textbooks and other instructional materials that students must purchase for their education as well as technology, such as laptop computers or other devices.

The average cost of books and supplies for first-year, full-time undergraduate students was comparable at public and private nonprofit schools. It was slightly less at private for-profit schools.

Average Cost of Books and Supplies for First-Year, Full-Time Undergraduates in 2020-2021
School Type Average Cost
All Schools $1,226
Public $1,230
Private Nonprofit $1,228
Private For-Profit $1,065

Source: NCES

However, students' costs may vary widely if they need to purchase a computer or another major device.

In a 2020-2021 survey of nearly 12,000 college students:Go to footnote [6]

  • More than half of all students purchased a major device, such as a laptop or desktop, in the school year.
  • Their spending averaged close to $1,100. Students who did not purchase a computer spent an average of $320 on technology.
  • On average, students spent $456 on course materials, including books and digital texts.

Transportation Costs

As expected, commuter students report spending more on transportation than students living on-campus.

Source: Trends in College Pricing 2021, College Board

Other Costs in College

The NCES' "other expenses" category includes many diverse, sometimes hidden costs of college, such as transportation, entertainment, laundry, dorm supplies, loan fees, study abroad, childcare, healthcare expenses, and more.

  • In 2020-2021, the average "other" expenses for first-year, full-time college students across all schools were $4,625.Footnote [1]
  • Students at private nonprofit schools had slightly higher expenses in this category, at $5,294 on average.Footnote [1]
  • Student expenses may vary by living situation. The California Student Aid Commission estimates Californian students living on campus spend $2,700 annually on personal expenses (which includes many of the expenses listed above but excludes loan fees, transportation, and childcare); students living off campus spend $3,924 a year.Go to footnote [7]

How Students Pay for College

There are many different ways to pay for college. These options include student loans, which students must repay with interest, as well as scholarships, grants, work study, and other financial aid which students never need to repay.

  • In 2019-2020, 85.4% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students received some kind of financial aid.Go to footnote [8]
  • About half received free aid in the form of federal grants or institutional grants.Footnote [8]
  • About one-third received free aid in the form of state or local grants.Footnote [8]
  • In 2019-2020, the average institutional grant for students awarded aid was $11,723.Footnote [8]
  • In 2019-2020, the average amount of federal scholarships and grant money undergraduates received was $8,600.Footnote [2]
  • There were 612,626 recipients of the Federal Work-Study program in 2017,Go to footnote [9] about 3.7% of college students enrolled that year.Go to footnote [10]
  • In 2021, more than 4 in 10 adults who attended college had used a student loan.Go to footnote [11]

Source: NCES

Frequently Asked Questions About the Cost of College

How much does four years of college cost on average?

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The average total cost of college in 2020-2021 was $35,551 a year. That's about $142,200 over four years.Footnote [1]

However, many students receive free financial aid through scholarships or grants, which lowers their net expenses. In 2019-2020, the average price of college after scholarships and grants was about $14,000 for public and $27,000 for private nonprofit colleges. Over four years, that's $56,000 to attend a public college and $112,000 for private colleges.Footnote [2]

What is the average cost of state college?

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For state residents, the average tuition at a four-year public college or university in 2019-2020 was $9,349. For out-of-state students, state school tuition costs $27,023 a year, on average.Footnote [4]

What is the average cost of books for college?

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In 2020-2021, books and supplies cost students $1,000-$1,250 a year, on average.Footnote [1] That includes textbooks, e-textbooks, and other course materials.

How much has the cost of college increased?

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Between 1970 and 2020, college tuition tripled — that's accounting for inflation. Room and board expenses almost doubled. Tuition at four-year public colleges climbed the most, growing roughly 260%.Footnote [3] In the 30 years between 1990 and 2020, the average total cost of college more than doubled.



References

  1. Table 330.40 Average total cost of attendance for first-time, full-time undergraduate students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control and level of institution, living arrangement, and component of student costs: Selected years, 2010-11 through 2020-2021. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). November 2021.
  2. Table 331.30 Average amount of grant and scholarship aid and average net price for first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking students awarded Title IV aid, by control and level of institution and income level: Selected years, 2009-10 through 2019-20. NCES. October 2021.
  3. Table 330.10 Average undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level and control of institution: Selected years, 1963-64 through 2020-21. NCES. January 2021.
  4. Table 330.20. Average undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board charges for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control and level of institution and state or jurisdiction: 2018-19 and 2019-20. NCES. April 2021.
  5. Poulin, R. & Straut, T., WCET Distance Education Price and Cost Report. February 2017.
  6. National Association of College Stores Watch Report. June 2021.
  7. 2022-2023 Student Expense Budget. California Student Aid Commission. August 2021.
  8. Table 331.20. First-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by participation and average amount awarded in financial aid programs, and control and level of institution: 2000-01 through 2019-20. NCES. October 2021.
  9. Table 2. Federal Campus-Based Programs Databook 2019. January 2020.
  10. Calculated using Table 303.70 Total undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control and level of institution: Selected years, 1970 through 2020. NCES. November 2021.
  11. Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021. The Federal Reserve. May 2022.