College Fees in the United States: Tuition Types & Financial Aids

College Fees in the United States: Tuition Types & Financial Aids
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

A college degree has become a critical credential for professionals who want to succeed in the workforce. After all many employers require it of applicants while some managers take into consideration during promotions. These aside, it is common knowledge that a degree brings other benefits such as job security, higher wages, as well as extensive career and networking opportunities.

The only downside is that pursuing higher education does not come cheap. Recent statistics reveal that the cost of attending college has more than doubled in the past decade. From tuition to boarding, it seems that college fees are not going to decrease any time soon. So, it comes as no surprise that many students opt to take out loans and apply for scholarships to finance their schooling.

That being said, this article aims to take a closer look at college fees and other critical insights that students must consider when pursuing a college degree.

College Fees in the United States Table of Contents

  1. What makes up college fees?
  2. In-State Tuition
  3. Out-of-State Tuition
  4. Private Tuition
  5. Sticker Price vs. Net Price
  6. Financial Aid
  7. Online Education Alternative

What makes up college fees?

College education anywhere in the world can be costly, with many households continuing to feel the pinch as university tuition fees and living expenses soar to new heights year after year. Since the 1990s, college tuition prices have risen steadily and are a lot higher today compared to two decades ago. According to recent US News data (“What you need,” 2019), tuition prices among public national universities have grown by 63% over a 12-year period from 2008 to 2020.

Although tuition usually takes the biggest chunk of college costs, it is not the only thing to consider when estimating the financial expenses of a college education. In fact, college fees can be broken down into five main categories: tuition fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses. To figure out exactly just how much a college degree costs, these five categories must be taken into account.


Tuition is the core component of every student’s college bill. This is the fee associated with taking courses, and it is usually calculated per credit. The amount varies depending on the academic program and the number of credit hours taken. For instance, most colleges typically charge $300 per credit for undergraduate courses, so a three-credit course will cost around $900 (“Basics of college,” n.d.).

Some colleges also offer a flat tuition rate that covers a fixed number of units per semester. This is ideal for students who can commit to a full schedule of classes per term.

Books and supplies

College students are also expected to pay for books, supplies, and other course materials. According to a recent survey data by College Board (Ross, 2015), university students at a four-year institution spend around $1,200 a year on books and supplies. To minimize these costs, it has become the norm for students to buy second-hand textbooks or otherwise rent them from older students.

Room and board

The price of room and board is another expense that makes paying for college challenging. Most colleges offer students who live on campus a number of dorm-room options and meal plans, and the charges vary depending on the student’s choices. In some schools, students are required to live in campus dormitories during their first two years, then they can live off-campus when they reach junior and senior years.

On average, students spend approximately $10,800 per year on room and board at public four-year institutions, while the cost goes up to $12,210 per year for private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities (“What is room,” 2020). Although living off-campus may be more affordable for some students, they still have their own rent and meal to consider in the total college costs.


Transportation is another thing that students must factor in when calculating total college costs. While the amount varies depending on how students travel and how often, the average transportation costs for college students is estimated at around $1,050 to $1,800 per year. This includes things like public transit passes or the costs of having a car on campus, including gas, parking fees, and regular maintenance (DeAmelio-Rafferty, n.d.).

Personal expenses

Essential items are usually provided by campus dormitories, but students still need to pay for personal items such as clothing, laundry, groceries, and toiletries. In some cases, they also need to allot part of their budgets to phone service, health insurance, and medications, and these can all add up to $2,000 per year (“What are the major expenses,” 2020). You can also save some money by shopping at stores that offer student discounts.

College Fees in the United States

While the U.S. remains a popular country for students wishing to study abroad, it is also one of the countries that offer the most expensive college fees. Since the late 1980s, college tuition fee in the U.S. at public and private universities has doubled, with the cost of undergraduate degrees rising by 213% and 129% at public and private schools, respectively (“Do millennials have,” 2020).

According to a recent report from HSBC (2018), students typically spend an average of $99,417 to complete a college degree. In order to afford this cost, 85% of students had to take up a part-time job while in college, while 62% of parents had to minimize leisure activities to support their child’s education (“Value of education,” 2018). Nonetheless, the U.S. still emerges as the top choice of parents who want their child to finish college abroad.

Public universities in the U.S. have two kinds of tuition fee rates: one for state residents and the other for students from other countries or other U.S. states. Meanwhile, private universities are usually smaller and have a more diverse population. Also, they offer more expensive college tuition costs that are basically at the same amount for all students.

College tuition rates in the U.S. can be examined in three major categories: in-state, out-of-state, and private college fees.

Source: College Board (2019)

In-State Tuition

Each state in the U.S. has its own selection of public universities run and funded by the government. Aside from student fees, these state schools receive funding from the government, and thus state residents usually pay for lower college fees.

According to the QS World University Ranking (2017), the top public universities in the U.S. are University of Michigan, University of California – Berkeley (UCB), and University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA). In the school year 2018-19, the average in-state tuition for public four-year colleges is $10,230 (“Average published,” 2019).

Out-of-State Tuition

Out-of-state tuition refers to the college fee that students, whose residence is outside the state where the university is located, will pay for. According to College Board (2019), the average out-of-state fees at public four-year colleges is $26,290. Since out-of-state students, including international students, do not pay tax contributions to the state, they are expected to pay additional fees to attend a public state school.

Private Tuition

In most cases, private universities outperform public universities when it comes to education quality. In these institutions, class sizes are usually smaller to allow a deeper and more meaningful interaction between instructors and students on a one-on-one basis. The student demographic at private institutions are also more varied compared to public universities, where a large part of the student population is made up of in-state students.

The QS World University Ranking (2017) lists the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford University, and Harvard University as the top private universities in the U.S. As of the school year 2018-19, the average tuition for private non-profit four-year universities is $35,830 (“Average published,” 2019).

Sticker Price vs. Net Price

For every college degree, there are two different prices to consider: the sticker price and the net price. The sticker price refers to the number that most colleges and universities lists in their brochures, while the net price is the total amount that students actually have to pay when scholarships, grants, and financial aid are factored in.

The sticker price is usually the total cost of yearly tuition, room and board, books, and other fees that the campus charges students, such as library card fees or parking permits. However, once the student applies for financial aid, the college subtracts the student’s financial needs, grants, and scholarships from the total, leaving behind the net price that the students will have to pay.

For instance, the average sticker price listed for private nonprofit four-year institutions in the school year 2019-20 is $49,870. Once the educational funding sources available to students are subtracted, the net price that full-time students have to pay becomes $27,400 (“Trends in college,” 2019).

When applying for college, many students often forget that the sticker price that they see is not the amount that they have to pay. In fact, some colleges that list high sticker prices are often the ones that offer the lowest net price as it considers every student’s financial situation.

To get an accurate estimate of net prices for specific colleges, students can use the stnet price calculator offered by some colleges. These calculators help students calculate the net price that they can expect to pay for one year in college. By asking a series of questions, such as on academic achievements, family income, household size, assets, and other factors, the tool comes up with an accurate net price that students can consider when choosing which college to attend.

Source: College Board (2019)

Financial Aid

Every year, tuition continues to increase and has more than doubled since the past decades, making college education unaffordable for families at the bottom of the income scale. This is where financial aid such as student loans, scholarships, and grants comes into play. With the help of financial aid, students can reduce out-of-pocket costs, allowing them to attend most universities.

Student loans

A student loan is an amount of money borrowed from the government, or in some cases a private lender, that a student takes in order to pay for college. This money usually goes to tuition, room, books, board, computers, and other fees, and it has to be paid back at a later date, along with the interest that slowly builds over time.

In the U.S., students can rely on two different types of student loans: federal and private. Federal loans are issued by the government, and students can get this by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and sharing their financial information on the form. Afterward, a certain loan amount will be granted to students based on their financial need.

On the other hand, private loans are issued by different sources, such as banks, credit unions, schools, or state agencies, and they usually have higher interest rates than federal loans. Moreover, in private loans, the lender decides the terms and conditions of the loan, and students usually have to start monthly payments while they’re still at school (“How do student,” 2019).

Student loan trends from Pew Research Center reveals that Americans owe about $1.5 trillion in student loans. Among adults aged 18 to 29, 34% are reported to have outstanding student loans, whereas for the older age groups, student debt is found to be less common, with only 22% of adults aged 30 to 44 having student loan debt and only 4% from those in the 45 and older age group (“5 facts about student loans,” 2019).

Source: Pew Research Center (2019)

Grants and scholarships

Grants and scholarships are another type of funding that students resort to in order to afford college. These are usually granted by the federal government or by colleges and private organizations to students with athletic, academic, or artistic talent.

In most cases, eligible students are also those in financial need, usually selected from a pool of eligible candidates from lower-income families. Unlike student loans, the money from grants and scholarships does not have to be paid back by the student.

According to a National Postsecondary Student Aid study (Vuleta, 2020), about 63.3% of undergraduate students relied on a certain type of grant to pay for college. This includes scholarships or tuition waivers from state, federal, or private sources.

Online Education Alternative

For many students, online education is increasingly becoming a convenient alternative to a traditional college degree. Today, students now have the option to take online courses and programs that follow the traditional semester calendar, or they can enroll in self-paced educational courses that can be completed in a certain time frame.

With the use of various elearning tools and platforms, individuals can have the opportunity of earning the same type of credits offered in a traditional college institution. It is much cheaper too—students enrolled in online classes usually pay around $100 to $400 per credit, and they no longer have to deal with the costs associated with room, board, transportation, and other college fees.

Online learning is also a great way to pursue education without too much pressure and commitment on the student’s part. This is because most online courses allow anyone to enroll in one course at a time and study at their own pace.

The latest online education statistics from the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System reveals that more students are now studying online, with the number of students taking an online course growing from 31.1% in 2016 to 34.7% in 2018. Data from the same report also show that graduate students are the ones most likely to take an online course (with 40% doing so), followed by four-year (34.5%) and two-year undergraduates (33.8%).

Source: Education Department's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (2018)

Understanding College Costs

Sure enough, college education does not come cheap, but it is becoming increasingly necessary for an individual to succeed in today’s economy. One Georgetown University study predicts that by the end of 2020, 65% of all jobs in the economy will require a college degree (“Recovery: Job,” 2020). This highlights the importance of college education and thus explains the surge in demand that the sector is currently experiencing.

An investment in college education yields an extremely strong return on investment, and students and parents need only glance at the numbers to see that the value of college education is higher today than it has ever been. A bachelor’s degree is one of the strongest proven paths toward success in the workforce, so it comes as no surprise that more individuals today are willing to take every opportunity to pursue higher education.



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