The True Cost of College: How Much Does Your Education Really Cost?

From tuition, room and board, books, and supplies, you’ll be surprised about how much you’re really paying for an education. There can be a lot of guesswork when you’re trying to figure out the true cost of college. Surprisingly, we are often only told the cost of tuition plus room and board. But in reality, there are more costs to consider for college and it’s important that you are aware of them.   

College Types and Average Costs

Your tuition will depend on the type of college you’re attending. You could have a public in-state university, public out-of-state university, or a private university. Check out this breakdown of each type of college’s published tuition and fees charges. It will help you get a better idea of how much you’re projected to pay for a four-year undergraduate degree.

  • Public In-State: $22,290 / year
  • Public Out-of-State: $38,870 / year
  • Private: $50,580 / year

These numbers are considered the sticker costs of colleges. Similar to the sticker price on a car, this number is subject to change depending on hidden and additional fees. What you need to evaluate is the net cost of college. The net cost will give you a true picture of the actual total including the costs that aren’t factored into the sticker price. Good news: your college expenses can be greatly reduced with grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, and other financial aid — we’ll discuss that later on. 

Net Price vs Sticker Price for In-State Public Colleges

Source: College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges; NCES, IPEDS Student Financial Aid data.

This table shows the published cost (sticker cost) for in-state student tuition plus room and board fees for a public four-year college. The difference between the average published cost and the net cost for the 2021-2022 school year are quite drastic (published cost = $27,330; net cost = $19,230). This is important to be aware of, especially when you’re taking out student loans. You can save yourself $32,000 over four years if you consider the net cost.

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Net Price vs Sticker Price for Private Non-Profit Colleges

Source: College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges; NCES, IPEDS Student Financial Aid data.

This table shows that there is a bigger cost difference between the published cost and net cost for private non-profit institutions. The published cost of college is $55,800 while the next cost is $32,720. A $23,080 yearly difference in tuition and fees can save you almost 6 figures when taking out student loans.

How Much Does MY College Really Cost? 

Use College Raptor’s College Search tool to help you find the net price of colleges you’re interested in, have applied to, or have already been accepted into. In just a few minutes, you’ll be able to see the estimated price of attendance, estimated grant aid, and estimated net price of your education per year. This tool can help you decide which college is better for you financially so you can make your attendance decision with confidence.

Download this table and fill it out with your top five choices for colleges. Comparing their costs side by side will help you see the true cost for each school you are considering to attend. 

What About Scholarships? 

Scholarship money can significantly reduce your college costs. The best part is, you don’t have to pay that money back. Plus, you’ll be able to save thousands of dollars on your tuition and other college expenses. Getting scholarships and grants will allow you to have a lower net cost for college. Use this scholarship finder tool to find a scholarship you qualify for! 

What “Other” Costs Are There?

Many people look at the sticker cost and base their financial decisions on that. But as we’ve demonstrated, those numbers may be deceiving. Another overlooked cost are the miscellaneous expenses that include meals, rent, and books. While student loans are frequently used as a solution for these costs, you need to know that they are far from free money. 

“When I started college, I took out student loans for everything. I paid my rent, groceries, tuition, and other expenses with my loans so I could work minimal hours while in school. Using both private and federal loans throughout my time in college, I didn’t know how harsh my repayment plan was until a few months before I graduated. I was set to pay what felt like an astronomical amount each month with an entry-level salary. My payment was close to my rent so building my savings was difficult. If I could go back and tell myself to read more about student loans and other financial options, it would save me a lot of money down the road.”

-Hannah T. (University of Minnesota) 


How to Loans Factor In?

A huge factor in your college costs are your student loans. Plan ahead by calculating your projected loan amount and repayment plan to see how much you’ll actually be paying for college over time. A lot of students see their initial student loan balance and assume that what they see is what they’re paying back. 

Unfortunately, students often fail to consider the interest rates when looking at their loans. The average interest rate for federal student loans is 3.73% a year while the average interest rate for private student loans is 7% a year and can get up to almost 12%. If you take out a $25,000 federal loan and pay it off in 10 years, you’ll pay back a total of $29,990.07. That same loan taken from a private lender will have a payback total of $34,832.54. Use this student loan calculator to punch in your estimated numbers and fill in your chart accordingly. You’ll see a real breakdown of your potential colleges’ expenses to help you understand your true cost of college.

Figuring out the true price of a college education is an understandable worry. Figure out how much the specific college(s) really costs. That way, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions. Informed decisions will help you graduate with fewer financial surprises and hopefully lower debt. 

Don’t let the real cost of college deter you from embarking on this journey. 


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