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.

Understanding the true cost of college can give you a more realistic overall picture of the financials involved with attending college. This in turn can help you make more informed decisions about which colleges are affordable for you and which aren’t.

Knowing the true cost of college will also help you create a comprehensive financial plan detailing how you’re going to get the funds to cover those costs.

What Does The Total Cost Of College Cover?   

Colleges generally publish their cost of tuition for various programs on their website. This gives you an estimate of how much it will cost you to enroll in that particular program in that college. However, this is only a part of what you can expect to pay for a college education. There are several other costs involved with attending college other than paying the fees for a specific course including:

  • tuition
  • room and board
  • books, and supplies
  • transportation

You’ll be surprised about how much you’re really paying for an education. Trying to figure out the true cost of college can be confusing with so many different components to take into consideration.

The total cost of attendance is different in different types of colleges. And to add to it all, there’s a difference between a college’s published price and the sticker price.

We’ve pored over the stats and charts related to college tuition and created a simple and easy-to-understand resource to help you make an informed decision about your choice of college.

College Types and Average Costs

Average Costs For Different College Types

First and foremost, your cost of tuition will depend on the type of college you’re attending. In the US, higher education institutes may be a public in-state university, public out-of-state university, or a private university. The cost of attending each of these types of colleges varies significantly as you can see below.

Check out this breakdown of each type of college’s published tuition and fees charges. These rates are from a 2022 report. Seeing the different costs will help you get a better idea of how much you can expect to pay for a four-year undergraduate degree at each type of college:

  • Public Four-Year In-State: $23,350 / year
  • Public Four-Year Out-of-State: $40,550 / year
  • Private Non-Profit Four-Year: $53,430 / 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.

In addition, your college costs will 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

This table shows the published cost (sticker cost) for in-state student tuition plus room and board fees for a public four-year college.

Chart shows average net price of 4 year public college.

Chart shows the average net price of 4-year public college for 2022-2023. Source: College Board Trends in Pricing 2022

The average net price of 4-year public college for 2022-2023. Source: College Board Trends in Pricing 2022

The difference between the average published cost and the net cost for the 2022-2023 school year are quite drastic. The published cost is $27,940 while the net cost is only $19,250. That’s a difference of $8,690. This is important to be aware of, especially when you’re taking out student loans. You need to borrow only what you need to cover the funding gap of the net cost not the sticker cost.

Net Price vs Sticker Price for Private Non-Profit Colleges

This table shows that there is a bigger cost difference between the published cost and net cost for private non-profit institutions.

Chart of average net price for private 4-year NFP college.

Average net price for private 4-year non-profit colleges for 2022-2023. Source College Board Trends in Pricing 2022.


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.

The published cost of college is $57,570 while the net cost is $32,800. That is a huge difference of $24,770 in tuition and fees, which makes a big difference to the total amount you’ll need to borrow by way of student loans. You only need to borrow enough to cover the funding gap of the net cost of $32,800 not the published cost.

How Much Does MY College Really Cost? 

College Raptor helps make it easier for you to understand what you will actually pay. We pull in the sticker price from Iped’s College Navigator and then estimate a student’s net price for each of the colleges they are looking at by estimating grants, scholarships and other forms of aid you may qualify for.

To get started:

  1. Sign up for a College Raptor account.
  2. Follow the prompts to enter your academic and major preferences, resident information, test scores and grades, and family financial information.
  3. Add colleges that you are interested in to your favorites list.
  4. Compare colleges and see your estimated net prices on your college match dashboard!

Pro Tip: while all the form fields are NOT required, the more information you input, the more accurate your net price estimate will be.

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 at specific colleges. This tool can help you decide which college is a better fit for you financially so you can make your attendance decision with confidence.

Let’s Talk About Scholarships

When you’re calculating the true cost of college, you should factor in scholarship money. Winning any scholarship money, however small the award can help to lower your total college costs significantly.

Scholarship money is free – you don’t have to pay that money back and you don’t pay interest on it. You do have to put in the work to find opportunities that you qualify for and then put together a winning scholarship application but that’s totally worth it. The money you win is yours to keep interest-free and can save thousands of dollars on your tuition and other college expenses.

The best part is there’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for or the amount of money you can win. The more opportunities you apply to the higher your chances of winning and lowering your net cost of college. Use this scholarship finder tool to look for scholarships you qualify for!

What Other Costs Are Involved?

Many families look at the sticker cost and base their financial decisions on that. But as we’ve demonstrated, those numbers may be deceiving.

Another cost many families overlook are the miscellaneous expenses that are involved with attending college. These include meals, rent, books, and other college supplies. If you don’t have a laptop, you’ll need to buy one, which is another expense added to the list. Depending on the program you’re enrolled in, you may also have laboratory fees or expenses for art supplies.

While most students will take on additional student loans to meet these costs, this is not free money. Not only do you have to return all this money but you will also pay interest on whatever money you borrow by way of student loans. This adds to the total cost considerably.

This is what one student had to say about taking student loans to cover miscellaneous costs:

“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) 

Understanding How Loans Factor Into The True Cost Of College

Student loans are a major factor in your total college costs. While they may be unavoidable, you must take time to figure out how much the loan you take is actually costing you. Here’s where many students make the mistake of seeing their initial student loan balance and assuming that what they see is what they’re paying back. What they often fail to consider are the interest rates when looking at their loans.

To calculate the true cost of college with student loans, you need to factor in your projected loan amount, the interest rate on the loan, and your repayment plan. Use this student loan calculator to calculate the actual amount you’ll be paying for college by the time you pay off your student loans.

You probably know this but it bears repeating, your first option should be to maximize your federal student loans. Consider applying for private student loans only if to cover any funding gaps. Federal student loans have much lower interest rates, which can save you thousands of dollars in accrued interest over the life of the loan. In addition, they also have more flexible repayment plans and other protections built into the loan, which can be a life-saver should you find yourself struggling financially in the future.

As of April 2023, the current federal interest rate for new undergraduate student loans is 4.99% a year while the average interest rate for private student loans ranges from 4% to 15%.

Is College Worth The Cost?

Not surprisingly, that’s a question on many students’ minds after learning about the high cost of attending college. So, is college worth the cost?

Equally surprising, we like to think that the answer is yes, college is worth the cost. The degree you earn when you graduate from college holds a lot of value when you’re looking for a job. It tells prospective employers that you have the knowledge and skills needed for the job, making you a more suitable candidate.

Even if you start at an entry-level position, you’ll have the foundation you need to qualify for a raise faster. Also, college graduates generally start with a higher salary, so you should be able to make up for the cost of college after a few years.

Another benefit of earning a college degree is that it qualifies you to sit for advanced exams and earn certifications that will help to fast-track your career. These certifications also open doors for more challenging roles with higher salaries and attractive perks.

All of these benefits and perks make college worth it despite the high cost. So don’t let the real cost of college deter you from embarking on this journey. The key is to make informed decisions that will help you graduate with fewer financial surprises and hopefully lower debt.

Use College Raptor to discover personalized college matches, cost estimates, acceptance odds, and potential financial aid for schools around the US—for FREE!


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