The Average Cost of College in the U.S.: Private vs. Public Tuition

The Average Cost of College in the U.S.: Private vs. Public Tuition
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The cost of college in the U.S. has been on the rise for years, and according to recently released data, the average cost of tuition and fees at private colleges and universities has now reached $35,000 per year. At public institutions, the average cost is $9,000 per year for in-state students and $23,000 per year for out-of-state students.

These figures do not even include the additional costs of room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses. Whether they are pursing an interior design career or planning to earn a theology degree or a kinesiology degree, or any other bachelor’s program for that matter, many students and their families are struggling to afford the ever-increasing cost of higher education.

There are a number of factors behind this trend, including cuts in state funding for public colleges and universities and the increasing use of part-time and adjunct faculty. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the cost of college is becoming increasingly difficult for many Americans to afford.

The ongoing conversation about college tuition is nothing new. This topic has become a national issue in the United States for hundreds of years now (Rothman, 2016). But before we discuss the key points affecting college tuition, let’s take a quick look at how it has changed over time.

Average Cost of College Table of Contents

  1. The Historical Cost of College Tuition in the US
  2. Public vs. Private Tuition
  3. In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition
  4. Two-Year vs. Four-Year Tuition
  5. College Tuition Based on Program

The Historical Cost of College Tuition in the US

Businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller lived in a time when society did not expect students to pay for college. That was the time when most students went into the ministry or get other jobs that pay less but benefit society; thus the country kept costs low. By the early 20th century, more students pursued college and went for high-income careers. Society thought: they should pay more for college. Years later, the national economy prospered and colleges went away from their missions focusing on ministry. Then, schools increased tuition (Rothman, 2016).

In 1910, private colleges started to gain more students from upper-class families. These students went to college for the experience, not for learning. They no longer aimed to help society change; instead, they worked on their personal goals, enjoyed the school environment, and got esteemed professions after graduation.

In 1927, Rockefeller campaigned for charging students the entire price it took to educate them because college was becoming more of a personal affair. He believed that students could pay tuition through student loans (Adam, 2017).

In 1931, the cost of Vassar room and board and tuition for a year became $1,200 or $500 for students who lived at home.

In 1950, University of Pennsylvania students paid $600. Ten years later, the overall college cost (tuition, room and board, and fees) for a year at Bates was $2,015 and $1,450 at Lewis and Clark.

In 1963, the yearly four-year public college tuition was $243. To cope with the inflation, tuition cost increased by 306% or $7,502. At this same time, a four-year degree averaged $42,220 ($5,144 prior to inflation).

In 1989, the same degree averaged $52,892. From 1989 to 2016, college tuition climbed almost eight times faster than wages.

Between 2010 and 2020, a 41.2% or $1,005 increase was imposed on average two-year college tuition. Meanwhile, a 34.3% or $2,448 increase was imposed on public four-year institutes and a 48.9% or $10,881 for private four-year institutes (, 2021).

A Comparison of the Factors Affecting College Tuition in the US

The average cost of college tuition in the US is $35,720 for each student, each year. With a yearly growth rate of 6.8%, the cost has tripled in 20 years (, 2021).

In HSBC’s The Value of Education report, the US appeared among the top options for parents thinking about study abroad for their children. However, it also appeared to be the most costly country to study.

The overall costs of studying in the US can be overwhelming, but it is also important to know the facts behind them (Bridgerstock, 2021).

Public vs. Private Tuition

A public college or university heavily relies on federal, state, and local sponsorship. In the past, states have shouldered the volume of sponsorship obligations. Recently, state sponsorship has declined and has been surpassed by federal spending (Kerr, 2019). Public schools have a huge number of local students due to in-state tuition. This instance makes public institutes competitive. Despite the image of public schools, many of them provide first-class education.

US colleges and universities belonging to the public sector have cheaper tuition. In a public four-year institute, a student spends an average of $9,308 every year for tuition and other fees. For the 2017-2018 academic year, the average cost of college tuition was $20,770 for in-state public schools (Song, 2021).

A private college or university is privately funded, mostly by donors and tuition dollars. These institutes vary from liberal arts to fine arts colleges, as well as schools designed for a specific field such as business or medicine. They operate independently, which means that they implement their own mandates and offerings (Kerr, 2019). They also tend to be smaller than public ones, have a more varied population, and offer fewer courses due to limited funding sources.

The average private college tuition is $53, 949 for each academic year. Private schools are reputable for only educating the richest students but little did everyone know that they are offering huge tuition discounts to qualified students.

The College Board

In-State vs. Out-of-State Tuition

Students living within a state pay the in-state tuition at a state institute. An in-state student attending a public four-year institute spends an average of $25,615 for each academic year. In-state tuition alone averages $9,580.

Students attending a school in a different state or coming from another country pay the out-of-state tuition. Out-of-state students spend $43,721 every year. Out-of-state tuition alone is at $27,437. Out-of-state tuition can be more expensive than in-state tuition due to the fact that nonresident students come from families who do not pay taxes to a certain state.

The most costly public schools are in the Northeast, in and around what is conventionally referred to as New England. This region also hosts many of the most costly private schools. The average tuition among the 10 most costly states for public universities is $14,297. Meanwhile, the least expensive schools are found in the South and Plains regions. The average tuition among states offering affordable public university tuition is $6,988 (, 2021).

The average cost of in-state tuition and fees vary depending on the state and academic year. One perfect strategy for paying cheaper tuition is to attend an in-state public university (Carter, 2019). Each state also has its own available aid for higher education. In addition, it is possible for out-of-state students to pay in-state tuition by complying with some requirements (Nationwide, n.d.).


Two-Year vs. Four-Year Tuition

Also known as a junior college, a community college offers two-year associate degrees. These colleges seldom require standardized test results for admissions. Students usually attend community colleges first before transferring to a four-year institute for several reasons (The Princeton Review, n.d.). Community colleges are run either by a division of the state university or by local special districts.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) states that there are 1,051 active community colleges in the US. The broad majority of them are public institutes offering associate degrees and professional certificates to undergraduate students. Bachelor’s degrees have also been recently added to their offerings (Great Value Colleges, n.d.).

When it comes to the average cost of community college, it is $4,808 for in-state and $8,589 for out-of-state public every year. For a private community college, the tuition is approximately $15,541 annually (Community College Review, 2021). Two-year tuition is at $17,128 for yearly tuition and fees in nonprofit schools and $15,821 in for-profit ones.

Throughout the years, community colleges have raised their academic standards and worked hard to become great alternatives for students who prefer two-year courses or use them as a stepping stone to a four-year degree.

Public, private, liberal arts, and career institutes offering bachelor’s degrees all belong to the four-year institute category. These degrees are typically completed by studying full-time for four entire years. Some of these institutes also offer graduate studies. Furthermore, many online colleges and universities offer four-year degrees as an online alternative to attending an actual campus (Campus Explorer, n.d.). College tuition at a four-year institute averages $20,471.

College Tuition Based on Program

Choosing a college major also plays an important role not just in terms of post-graduation careers but also on the total amount of college tuition. Differential tuition, a growing trend in US institutes, refers to the diverse cost of tuition and fees based on a major. Schools that rely on a differential tuition model charge students based on the chosen field of study, the market value of the degree, demand for the major, and instruction fee (Tretina, 2020).

Engineering is the most popular program in the US, with over 20% of its enrollees being international students. Its annual tuition averages $32,000. As a practical degree, engineering jobs include electrical engineering, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), engineering graduates earn an average salary of $63,000 (Das, 2016).

Business administration and management is another popular major in the US. Its average annual tuition is $56,000 or $75,000 if additional fees, food, and living allowances are to be included. This program covers advertising, public administration, entrepreneurship, international business, and more. The average annual salary of a sales manager is $126,640, a financial manager is $129,890, a human resource manager is $116,720, a food service manager is $55,320, and a marketing manager is $135,900 (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019).

There was also a surprising growth in the number of US students taking up computer science, which costs $25,000 every year. Professionals working in the IT industry receive great pay, an annual salary of $67,306, and numerous career opportunities in the US and globally.

Visual and applied arts are music, theater, media, architecture and design, and art and film. Its average tuition is $22,000 every year. Technology, media, and retail companies offer many career opportunities in this field. The national average salary for a visual and applied arts major is $52,274 annually.

For social sciences, the average tuition is $32,000. This program includes courses on anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and sociology. From 2017 to 2018, social sciences graduates earned an average of $34,816. Depending on the chosen occupation, salaries can differ widely. The top five highest paying careers in this field are economic professors, $117,180; economists, $116,020; and political scientists, $115,300 (College Factual, 2021).

Other popular programs in the US, with their corresponding tuition cost, are liberal arts and sciences, $20,000; intensive English, $10,000; biological and medical sciences, $20,000; mathematics, $23,000; and medicine, $50,000 (Collegedunia, n.d.).

Is Attending College in the US Worth the Cost?

Many have started wondering whether attending college in the US is a good decision provided the increasing tuition cost and uncertainty in acquiring a relevant job afterward. Luckily, the listed cost of college is almost deceiving. The sticker price is the published rate, which is different from the amount students actually pay after considering other sources of funding and financial aid (Bridgestock, 2021). Federal aid can also essentially decrease tuition costs based on a student’s financial situation. Moreover, private aid both from citizens and organizations can lessen the burden.

For some, life circumstances may get in their way of attending higher education. Others also do not pursue college to get a job right after high school and start earning money, but the delay in earning money is definitely worth it (Khan Academy, n.d.). For example, a typical four-year bachelor’s degree holder earns almost more than $1 million throughout their lifetime than a high school diploma holder. However, not all education aids are created equal as they vary from colleges or universities and choice of major.

Without a doubt, financial aid can make college affordable and graduates can earn more throughout their professional careers. If one proceeds carefully, the answer is yes—attending college in the US can be one of the best decisions a student will make (Khan Academy, n.d.).



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