How Much Does College Cost?

Let’s talk about college cost…

How much does college cost?

How much does college cost?

The average public four-year in-state, on-campus cost was $24,610. And the average private nonprofit four-year on-campus cost was $49,320. That’s according to The College Board’s Trends in Higher Education report. This is per year, people.

That means it costs about $98,440 for a four-year degree. This is at a public four-year in-state, on-campus college. It also means this is just for one student.

  • Sending 2 kids to college: $196,880
  • 3 kids: $295,320
  • 4 kids: $393,760

Of course, if you have students going at the same time, it’ll be a little more economical. And there’s other ways to lower that bill. Currently a third of college cost is being paid for by scholarships. And I personally know parents that don’t even bother to apply. No matter how much income you make, you should file FAFSA.

That aside. Let’s get into these crazy numbers. The the @#%$ is driving these numbers up? We’re going to have to do a deep dive. There are a lot of components that can ratchet up the cost of college. We’ll be diving into most of them here.

Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets 2016-17

Sector Tuition and Fees Room and Board Books and Supplies Transporation Other Expenses Total Expenses
Public Two-Year, In-District Commuter $3,520 $8,060 $1,390 $1,760 $2,270 $17,000
Private Nonprofit, Four-Year On-Campus $33,480 $11,890 $1,230 $1,070 $1,650 $49,320
Public Four-Year, Out-of-State On Campus $24,930 $10,440 $1,250 $1,160 $2,110 $39,890
Public Four-Year, In-State On Campus $9,650 $10,440 $1,250 $1,160 $2,110 $24,610
Source: The College Board, Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets 2016-17

Have you taken the time to visit some of the colleges and universities that interest you yet? Were you looking for how much it’ll cost to attend? We all do it. We’re trying to see if it’s within our budget so that we can make an informed decision.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. College is going to cost different for every student. We each have unique situations and resources available that make up our college cost. Like I said, there are several components to it. As you consider each of these, understand that you need to make a decision that right for your family. The final price tag for college will be different from student to student and family to family. Each family’s situation will be as different as a finger print.

There are many expenses that drive up the college cost. Some of them you can control to an extent. Others, you’ll need to factor into your “College Done Right” Pre-Approval Worksheet”. I’d like to believe that parents want to create the most ideal outcome for their students. This worksheet will help you do that. It’ll ensure they don’t take out more in loans than they can afford. I always strive for my clients to be free of student loans by the time they are 30.

So let’s dive in to the major components that cause many students to get in trouble after college.

When you think of how much college is going to cost you, what’s your first thought?


College Cost #1: Tuition

Yes. Tuition is the first college cost that’s going to come to most people’s mind. It has to be the largest contributor to the cost of college. Right? Not really.

Tuition and fees are the price you pay for taking classes at your college. This amount can change based on your academic program, the number of credit hours you take and whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student. Some colleges charge “comprehensive fees” — the total for tuition, fees, and room and board combined. – The College Board

Tuition is a college cost based on what the cost of credit is. Think of it as a unit cost, like per credit hour. If one credit hour costs $100, a three-credit course will cost $300, and a four-credit course costing $800.

Out-of-state tuition can cost twice as much when compared to in-state colleges. The good news is that some colleges have agreements with other institutions. They can offer in-state rates to out-of-state students. That’s something to consider.

Some universities are offering a flat rate tuition to help students graduate on time. Graduating on time is enrolling at a 4-year college and graduating in four years. The average time it takes a student to get to a 4-year degree is almost five years. With the flat rate tuition, students pay the same amount of tuition whether take 12 or 18 credits. It’s pretty neat. I like it. Flat rate tuition allows for  students to graduate at an accelerated rate. That’s because student are able to take more credits without added cost. And shaving the cost of college is what I’m all about.

College Cost #2: Room and Board

Your student needs a place to live while at college. Living off-campus, sometimes, isn’t an option — unless they live nearby. Colleges usually offer a variety of dorm-room options for students who live on campus. The charges vary depending on what plan you choose. If you decide to live at home or off-campus, you’ll have rent to consider in your college cost.

Living off-campus may seem more affordable. Keep in mind there are other more expenses associated with living off-campus. To add a few, you’ll have parking, gas, and electric. Because of the extra freedom, there’s also the expense of having night life out in town.

Today, colleges and universities are building impressive additions to their grounds. Dorm rooms come with all the amenities to sweep your kids of their feet. College is a business and they have great salespeople.

This is why is critical to put together an pre-approved budget before you visiting. How are you ever going to talk you kids out of a college that you later discover you can’t afford? Transfers are expensive.


Once your student sees this… forget about it (University of Missouri “Mizzou”)

Mizzou also has a lazy river and beach club. What?!

Boston University has the swankiest dorms your students will ever live in. Hello, private bathrooms, walk-in closets, lounges with flat screens, and more.

Virginia Tech has a marketplace-style dining hall. They have restaurants that serve steak to order and live lobster every damn day.


College Cost #3: Speaking of food…

Colleges offer a variety of meal plans that you can customize for your student.

How hungry does your student get? How many visits will they make to the dining hall? Do they eat the traditional three meals a day? Will they be eating at the dining hall on the weekends, too? Or do they graze throughout the day? Maybe they’ll need an unlimited plan. Factor that into your college cost.

Meal plans allow your student to choose between a variety of dining halls. They offer an array of choices, including brick-oven pizza, stir-fries, pastas, and salads. Kosher, halal, vegetarian, and vegan options are usually also available.

Northwestern University offers a variety of meal plans. Pick from one that will suit your student’s eating habits. All new students living on campus are required to participate in their Resident Dining Meal Plan. That costs a whopping $3,490 per semester. What!?

That covers 15 means per week. I guess you’re on your own for the weekends. Might as well get the 19 Meal for $300 more.

Most colleges and universities also have campus grocery stores. Many also have access to large chain restaurants right on campus. Having a Starbucks on campus is a plus for me. The best part is your meal plan includes Dining Dollars that you can use at these places.

We know that eating out is costly. At home, we are conscious of trying not to eat out too often. Will you want your student do the same? You’ll need to have the conversation with them. If you decide to let them eat out, make sure to add it to your college cost.

Some parents will give their students a food allowance, either weekly or monthly. Others might have the student to support themselves through work. You have to do what’s right for your family and your student. Whatever you decide is up to you.

Not all meal plans are $3,490 a semester like in Northwestern. But they can still be $3,000 for the year. A typical meal plan is going to be about $1,500 per semester. Don’t forget to add this to your college cost budget

College Cost #4: Oh, the Fees

Part of the Tuition and Fees is the… yes, you guessed it. The fees. And it’s a growing college cost. There are a broad range of fees that you could expect to pay. Many of them could be a hidden college cost that you weren’t aware of. Fees can surge to two or three thousand dollars, adding to your already out of control price tag.

Think tuition is out of control? There are a slew of fees now being added. Building maintenance fees, library fees, student fees, fees for athletics come to mind. There are even fees associated with graduating. That’s right. Just when you thought you were done paying for college. You get hit with a “Congratulations!” bill.

For most parents, these expenses come as a surprise. They weren’t expecting them. They’re not even covered by financial aid. This usually causes parents or students to have to take out more loans. Some give up on college altogether.

The experience, described by one parent, was kind of like “buying a car”. You’re like what is this charge? What’s that charge.. and and here’s a fee for $200 to put the plates on the car. Nobody prepares you for this stuff.

Fees can be quite diverse and can include:

  • Course fees (science labs or art classes)
  • Parking on campus
  • Orientation
  • Student ID
  • Library
  • Campus facilities & transportation (like a campus shuttle)
  • Environmental fees
  • Support programs
  • Legal services
  • Computer or tech fees (wi-fi)
  • Commencement
  • Student government
  • Athletics or spirit programs
  • Health insurance
  • Graduation

Not all universities charge for these items. But as the focus and pressure to drive tuition prices continue, you’ll be sure to see fees pop up all over the place. Colleges and universities usually post estimated fees on their website. Some are easy to find, but you might need to look deeper to find more fees.

UCONN Tution & Fees

For example, UCONN has a mandatory fee of $2,842 for Storrs students. Regardless if they are in-state or out-of-state students. Additionally, all full-time students are billed for the university’s health insurance plan. That is unless your student is already covered and you take the time to waive the fee.

Make sure you add Fees to your college cost budget. If it’s going to be $3,000, you need to account for how you’re going to pay for it.


College Cost #5: Books and Supplies

Your student will need books and other course materials while they attend college. The average cost for college text books, according to the College Board was about $1,250 for the 2016-17 year. UCONN and Boston University  estimate these “indirect costs” as about 1,000 as well.

You may be able to lower these costs by buying used textbooks or renting them. The on-campus bookstores will be the most expensive route. You can rent or purchase used books on sites like You can also try as well.

Money tip: Books are a qualified expense. Make sure to snap a photo or scan your textbook receipts and then send them to a cloud drive such as Dropbox or Box. They’re free to use. Your 529 College Savings Plan can reimburse that purchase. But be sure to request reimbursement in the same year as the purchase.

I recommend to scan or snap a photo of your receipt. This is because my receipts get lost, tossed out by accident, or they just fade within the month.


College Cost #6: Transportation and Miscellaneous

Will your student commute to campus? Will they take occasional trips back home? If so, you’ll have some transportation costs. You’ll want to keep those costs down. Flights back home and taxis are expensive. Also, Uber or Lyft trips as a mode of transportation at college will drive that college price tag up fast. Figure out what you plan to spend and add that amount to your budget.

Your student will also have personal expenses — I’m betting on lots of them. Colleges and universities put together some estimated costs on their website. These are estimates that the college feels your student might spend. Make sure to account for laundry, cell phone bill, eating out, hanging out with friends, night life and such. Add those numbers to your budget.


In closing

Remember when you closed on your home? You probably got a mortgage pre-approval letter from the bank. They asked you a heck of a lot of financial questions, and questions about your job. What they were trying to figure out was how much of a loan they could give that you could reasonably pay back.

There’s no such thing with college.

While student loans aren’t exactly limitless, it’s not unrealistic to rack up over $100,000. That’s limitless to me. ‘

Why would lender give out that much money to a kid? Why not? For starters, they can. Often parents help their students apply for it, ending up as cosigners. Also, there’s the fact that you can’t bankrupt out of them. Even if a student died, there’s a good chance that a parent would still be responsible for some part of the loan.

Unfortunately, society isn’t good at teaching kids about money. The typical 18-20 year old thinks student loan debt is just part of the journey to the big bucks. It takes money to make money. Many don’t think twice about racking up six-figures in debt.

It’s only in the aftermath of college, that they realize the numbers aren’t adding up.

Let me share with you how the typical college graduate looks at income. Let’s take a $60,000 salary. They’ll do simple math like this on their phone:

$60,000 ÷ 12 months = $5,000 a month. That’s $2,500 per pay period. Gnarly!

Well, they most likely don’t say “gnarly“. But you get the point.

Here’s the real math and what you need to teach them. A $60,000 a year salary is actually $2,307 in Gross Pay paid bi-weekly — not $2,500. And that’s Gross. There’s this thing called taxes. After taxes, they’ll be left with a net take home $1,627.55 bi-weekly. That’s a lot different than $2,500.

Calculating for Student Loans: For every $10,000 you take out in student loans, you will have to pay back $100/month.

If you took out $100,000 in student loans, by the end of college it will grow to $120,000. There interest capitalization and compounding. That translates to a $1,200 monthly payment. That’s over the next 10 or 15 years depending on your repayment plan.


Monthly net pay: $3,254
Rent: $1,200 (split 2-way) $600
Utilities: $500
Car: $300
Gas: $100
Groceries: $250
Entertainment: $250
Student Loans: $1,200
End of month: $54

That doesn’t look like the life they expected. Does it?

You don’t want your kids to ever be in this situation. You will feel helpless. And that will cause you to do irrational things.
Instead, before your student heads off to college, sit down with them. After years of doing this, I have my clients sit down with their kids and fill out a “Life After College” worksheet. This helps the student understand what life will feel like, financially, after college. They’ll see that the more they take out in student loans, the less of their income they get to keep.
In the situation above, they’ll see that they’ll be working hard for nothing. There’s no money at the end of the month. And if we can flip that around, before taking out all this debt, we can show how they can strategically free up some cash to use for trips to Cancun. We could save for a down payment on a home, get a nice ride, and some cool kicks.

Now it’s your turn

Why don’t you take a moment to share your thoughts or experiences. How are you going to try to keep your college cost down to a minimum? Use the comments below. We are a community of young families. We’re all bracing for the impact of college. And we want to hear from you.
My goal in working with families is to put their kids in the most ideal situation. Let’s focus on maximizing scholarships and grants. Let’s keep the need for student loans to a minimum. And let’s graduate on time (4 years). And let’s rinse and repeat for the next student.
Until next time,


Tom Martin

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