Paying for college is expensive, and many families are feeling the pinch as tuition costs soar.
College tuition prices are a lot more today compared with two decades ago. For instance, the average cost for tuition and fees data among National Universities – private and public – has risen significantly since the late 1990s, according to U.S. News data. Those increases aren't limited to these universities; costs among other four-year institutions and community colleges have also grown.
Higher education policy analysts say most of the hikes in tuition among private and public four-year institutions coincided with the Great Recession.
According to a 2017 paper by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state spending on public colleges and universities remains at a historic low since the 2007-2008 school year.
In fact, in-state tuition prices among public National Universities grew by 65 percent over a 10-year period from 2007-2008, U.S. News data show. That increase was more than the published tuition hikes among private National Universities during that period.
Experts say state schools have more room to increase tuition levels compared with their private counterparts, and finding a bargain price at the state level is becoming harder.
With higher tuition costs, more students are determining their college selection based on price. Approximately 40 percent of students turned down their first-choice college because of financial concerns, according to a 2017 survey by EAB's enrollment services division, formerly known as Royall & Co.
But higher education experts recommend that prospective students look beyond published prices, since the tuition listed may not be the actual amount they'll pay after financial aid and institutional grants. For families and prospective college-bound students, here are a few questions and answers on tuition costs.
How Much Is College Tuition?
Tuition and fees vary from college to college. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,699 at private colleges, $9,528 for state residents at public colleges and $21,632 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey. When it comes to costs, the average tuition and fees to attend an in-state public college is a third of the average sticker price charged at a private institution.
At public two-year institutions, tuition and fees cost approximately $3,570 on average per year for in-state students, according to the Trends in College Pricing 2017 report by the College Board. But there are community colleges that charge several thousand dollars more. According to the College Board report, the average tuition and fees charged to in-state students at two-year public schools in Vermont and New Hampshire exceeded $6,800.
What Are the Differences Between Tuition and Fees?
The biggest chunk of college costs is usually tuition – the amount of money required for instruction. Oftentimes – especially at the undergraduate level – students are required to pay fees; these costs usually need to be paid to enroll in and attend class.
"It really all should be called tuition, but some play a little shell game when they don't want to advertise tuition increases. So they increase a fee over here, and you end up with something complicated like that. Others include it all as one straight fee," says Nate Johnson, founder and principal of Postsecondary Analytics, a Florida-based higher education research firm.
Johnson says students and parents should look to college guides that standardize these amounts for apples-to-apples comparisons. For instance, U.S. News Best Colleges standardizes sticker prices, listing the combined published prices of tuition and fees for each school.
How Do I Use a Tuition Calculator?
The cost of attendance isn't always clear, since many families don't pay the sticker price once financial aid and institutional grants are factored into the bill.
"I would advise all families to fill out the net price calculator on the website for each school under consideration to have the best possible understanding of the costs involved at the various options," says Colleen Ganjian, founder of DC College Counseling.
Net price is the amount students pay to attend an institution for an academic year after subtracting scholarships and grants. In essence, net price is the final price a family can expect to pay, and it's often lower than the published price.
The Department of Education’s College Scorecard includes links to schools’ net price calculators. Federal guidelines require colleges and universities to provide an online net price calculator. These calculators – intended for first-time, full-time undergraduate students – produce estimated values based on the information the student or parent provides.
Which Colleges Are the Least Expensive?
When it comes to published prices, attending a state school as an in-state student might be the least expensive option. Johnson says that's because "everyone who goes to those schools in effect is getting a scholarship – a discount in the cost of education paid by taxpayers."
He says students who choose to go out of state for college forfeit that subsidy. However, there are few states with tuition reciprocity programs. Minnesota, for example, holds an agreement with several neighboring states – Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, one institution in Iowa and the Canadian province of Manitoba – that reduces nonresident tuition for Minnesotans to attend their public institutions.
Prices among state schools across the country vary. State schools in Wyoming, followed by Florida, charge the least on average for four-year public college, according to the College Board. The states with the most expensive published tuition and fee prices on average for in-state students are Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Oftentimes tuition and fees at flagship universities for in-state students cost more compared with other colleges and universities in the state. For example, the University of California—Los Angeles' in-state published price for the 2017-2018 year – $13,256 – is more than double the in-state sticker price at California State University—Los Angeles – $6,613.
"If you're thinking about schools within the state where tuition can vary, then it's a question of whether the college that you're looking at that's more expensive can offer more value because it offers programs that make it worth paying a bit more," Johnson says.
Higher education experts say students shouldn't rule out private schools, since these institutions often offer tuition discounts that may make them competitive with state school prices.
"A student can sometimes get a better financial deal to attend a private school than if they were to attend a public school. A big factor in this is the institutional scholarship. The scholarship at a private school may be larger than a public school to make their overall cost out-of-pocket more competitive to a public school," says Andy Stiles, director of admissions at Ottawa University, a private liberal arts college in Kansas.
This practice among private institutions of offering grants, scholarships and fellowships to offset the sticker price is known as tuition discounting. This practice began in the 1970s and become more commonplace in the 1990s as an enrollment tool.
Private institutions discounted their freshman tuition at an estimated record high in 2016-2017 at 50 percent, according to report from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
Which Colleges Are the Most Expensive?
Colleges with the highest published prices – Columbia University, Vassar College and Harvey Mudd College– are among highly selective, four-year institutions. These institutions charge more than $50,000 for their sticker price, but many students pay less than this amount to attend.
"Typically, private liberal arts colleges have the highest sticker price, but that doesn't mean they won't be competitive with other universities given their large endowments – especially if you qualify for financial aid and scholarship opportunities," says Amy Goodman, a principal college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based admissions consulting company.
Should You Buy Tuition Insurance?
Some schools with expensive published prices offer generous financial aid packages. In fact, Brown University, Harvard University and Stanford University, to name a few, meet students' full demonstrated need with no loans added to any financial aid package. While these schools charged more than $48,000 in tuition and fees for the 2017-2018 year, they rank highly among U.S. News' Best Value Schools. This ranking takes into account academic quality and the net cost of attendance for a student who received the average level of need-based financial aid.
Harvard, for example, provided need-based financial aid to 55 percent of freshmen in the 2016-2017 year. The typical cost after grants at Harvard for that year was $16,338.
For that reason, experts say, students shouldn't just pay attention to sticker price, but to net price as well. While some schools may look more costly, they actually may charge less on average.
"The pricing game isn’t very transparent. It's important to understand that the sticker price, which can look very high, is probably not what most students will actually pay," Johnson says.
Colleges with the highest net prices are largely art schools – Southern California Institute of Architecture and the School of Art Institute of Chicago, says Sabrina Manville, co-founder of Edmit, a college cost comparison website.
Small liberal arts colleges, she adds, also tend to cost more when it comes to average net price. Manville cites Oberlin College and Sarah Lawrence College as examples. "These are colleges that certainly offer respectable financial aid packages to many students with need, but charge the average student more than they would have had to pay at comparable colleges," she says.
Which Schools Offer Free Tuition?
A handful of colleges and universities are tuition-free, but these institutions usually require work or service in exchange.
Students at the United States Naval Academy or United States Military Academy, for example, are required to serve after graduation. In return, tuition, room and board are free at these institutions. There are three other service academies with similar arrangements: United States Air Force Academy, United States Coast Guard Academy and United States Merchant Marine Academy.
Other institutions that offer tuition-free education stipulate certain requirements, such as in-school employment. Berea College in Kentucky and College of the Ozarks in Missouri require full-time undergraduates to work a set number of hours with on-campus jobs.
Are There States With Tuition-Free College Programs?
Currently, 11 states offer a form of tuition-free promise programs. Almost all of these are at the two-year institution level. New York is the exception, which offers its program – the Excelsior Scholarship – at the two- and four-year level. State-level programs typically have certain guidelines for students to qualify.
"The tuition-free opportunity is based on residency and may take into consideration other factors like household income or program of study," Goodman says.
Other requirements include holding a high school diploma and other guidelines, such as a minimum GPA. The Oregon Promise program, as an example, requires a 2.5 cumulative high school GPA or higher, or a GED score of at least 145 on each test.
In Kentucky, the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship program provides tuition assistance to in-state students who are U.S. citizens. Students must also enroll in a certain field of study to qualify. One approved field, for example, is earning a certificate as a bricklayer helper.
Other states, such as West Virginia, are in the process of creating a tuition-free program. Promise programs also exist at the city level. Kalamazoo, Michigan, was the first city to inspire the college promise movement more than 10 years ago. Other cities in recent years have developed promise programs for local high school graduates, including Detroit, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, California, and New Haven, Connecticut.
What You Need to Know About College Tuition Costs