How Much Does College Cost?

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When it comes to paying for college, there’s a lot more to consider than just the tuition bill. College students should also think about how much everything from an apartment to flying back home for break to late-night munchies will cost them. And while these costs add up, there’s no need to panic: We’ve got ways you can save big.

How Much Does College Really Cost?

To help you figure out how much college will cost you each year and how to finance college, we’ve made a list of the major expenses and the price tag for each. The quick gist of it is this: The bulk of your college expenses come from your tuition, fees, room and board, which altogether typically cost anywhere from about $17,000 (for an in-state public school) to $29,600 (for an out-of-state public school) to $38,500 per year (for a private school), according to a study by the College Board.

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Add in personal expenses, books, supplies and transportation, and the total annual tab balloons to about $21,500 for an in-state public university to $34,000 for an out-of-state student at a public school to over $42,000 for a private college. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.  So, here’s a detailed look at what you’ll pay for college each year––and how you can save on each expense.

Tuition and Fees

college student applying for student loan

Your tuition and fees—tuition covers the cost of your classes; fees cover everything from athletics to the student health center —can vary by tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the school you select.

The average annual tuition and fees range from $8,244 for in-state students at a public school to $20,770 per year for out-of-state students, to $28,500 at a private college.  Tuition and fees represent the largest component of your total annual college cost.

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HOW TO SAVE: The best way, of course, is to obtain scholarships, which don’t have to be paid back. You’ll automatically be eligible for some scholarships offered by the schools you get accepted by. But don’t stop there! Check out our article “Score Cash for College” (page 54) for other places to look for scholarships.

If you don’t score enough money to go to your dream school, consider going to an in-state or two-year school for a couple of years and then transferring,” says Andrew Schrage, the Editor at MoneyCrashers.com. You’ll get your degree from your dream school at half the price.

Room and Board

The price of “room and board”—a.k.a. housing and meals—can range a lot depending on where you live and what school you go to.

Students at public schools can expect to pay an average of $8,887 and those at private schools will pay an average of $10,089 per year. These prices are for dorms on campus. The cost will vary if you choose to live in a Greek house, an off-campus apartment or, to really save money, living at home. (See the sidebar.)

HOW TO SAVE: If you live in a dorm your freshman year, you’ll probably have to buy a meal plan. The convenience of getting meals on campus is probably worth the cost for the first year. However, most schools offer options, such as a lower amount of meals per week (good if you want to get your own breakfast or meals on weekends).

After your freshman year, you might want to ditch the meal plan—it’s often cheaper to buy inexpensive food on your own, says Schrage.

Books and Supplies

college student in a library

The average yearly cost of books for college students is $1,200.  You might pay more if you’re a science major, as these classes often have expensive textbooks that are updated each year. You may pay less if you’re an English major, as paperback novels can be bought for a few bucks.

HOW TO SAVE: For some students, renting your textbooks or buying used textbooks through a site like eCampus.com, Chegg.com or BookRenter.com can save you on college costs each semester.

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Also check out Gutenberg.org, which has thousands of novels and other books that you can download for free. It’s also key to remember to sell back your textbooks to the bookstore (or put them for sale online) at the end of the semester to recoup some of your costs.

Computers and software can be a significant expense. Some companies, such as Dell and Apple, offer discounts to students. However, be sure to check the big retailers like Best Buy, Costco and Amazon as well. Microsoft offers a “student edition” for Office software, which is less than the standard version. Check for education discounts on other software, such as Adobe Acrobat.

Transportation

The average student who lives on campus spends about $1,082 on transportation per year. But this can vary widely from almost nothing if your family lives right near the university, to thousands of dollars per year if you have to fly home to visit your family.

For those who have to fly home each year, Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FastWeb.com and FinAid.org, says you should consider that the average student typically goes home at least twice a year (during winter and summer breaks).  And many students choose to go home four times a year—summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break.  Look at the average airfares to determine how much you’ll spend.

If you’re going to have a car at school, you’ll also need to factor in gas, maintenance, and possibly parking, as many schools require you to buy a parking pass, or pay by the hour, to park on campus. If you don’t have a car and plan to do any off-campus exploring freshman year, be sure to factor bus fare into your budget.

HOW TO SAVE: Shop for flights months in advance and do it on a Tuesday afternoon, as that’s when they tend to be cheapest, according to an analysis by airfare tracker FareCompare.com. To save on gas, check out GasBuddy.com, which finds the cheapest gas in the area, and be sure to get regular maintenance to avoid having to shell out a lot later if your car breaks down.

Other Expenses

college student computing school expenses

For all other expenses—from laundry to cell phone service to entertainment —you should plan on spending an average of about $2,000 per year.

Plus, new students may face some “start-up expenses,” says Reecy Aresty, author of “How to Pay for College Without Going Broke.” For example, if you live in a warm climate now but are going to school up north, you may have to buy new winter clothes.

HOW TO SAVE: Create a budget on Mint.com, a site that securely pulls all of your bank account and credit card information in one place, which will show you where you’re spending the most money and provide you with suggestions on how to save.  Then take a look at some of your bigger expenses, like your cell phone and entertainment.

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To lower your cell phone bill, Schrage recommends “going on a family plan, negotiating with your provider, cutting back on unnecessary features, and going with the base model plan or even a pay-per-minute plan.” Plus, “you need to take advantage of every free form of entertainment that there is at your school, including attending free campus sporting events, concerts, and guest lectures,” he adds.

This list of college expenses probably seems pretty overwhelming. But the good news is that with careful planning and a combination of scholarships and applying to colleges with financial aid, you will be able to fund your education. So start planning now. You’ll be heading off to your dream school sooner than you think!

Cathrine Robert is a freelance writer in New York.

Pros and Cons of College Housing Options

student thinking of getting an apartment

Once you choose a college, you’ll also need to find somewhere to live (unless you’re commuting from home). Your housing choice can be an extension of college life or simply a place to sleep. Here are a few options to consider:

Residence Hall

Living in a residence hall (or dorm) is a popular choice for first-year students. This all-inclusive option lets you meet new people outside the classroom and, along with available meal plans, is probably the best “all-in-one” choice. Pre-arranged study groups and activities in campus housing mean you’ll never be bored, and because residence halls are conveniently located, you don’t need a car.

Residence hall living also means you can be more immersed in college life. This makes a dorm a great choice since most freshmen don’t know anyone when they first arrive. On the downside, expect noise, a small and sparsely furnished living space, and minimal privacy.

You’ll probably be assigned a roommate, who may turn out to be your best friend (well, at least your first friend, for a while). So while there are advantages and disadvantages to dorm living, it’s probably your best option to get a true taste of college life as a freshman.

Greek House

If you join a fraternity or sorority, you may be able to live in a Greek house as a freshman, although at most schools you’ll have to wait until you’re a sophomore. In a Greek house, you’ll live with like-minded people, many of whom will become friends.

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Fraternities and sororities have a lot of social activities, so they might be a good choice if you aren’t as inclined to seek them out on your own. Some houses have cooks or house mothers, while others require members to prepare their own meals. Many Greek houses bundle all living expenses into one fee.

Apartment

college student studying in apartment

Living in an apartment means you get to choose your roommate(s) and make your own rules. By having a true space to call home, it’s easier to separate yourself from school, and, depending on the choices you make, this can be a fairly inexpensive living arrangement. Apartments offer more privacy and probably impose fewer restrictions on your activities than dorms.

However, apartment living also requires the most responsibility. You’ll need to shop for groceries, cook, pay your rent and utilities, manage your bills, and buy furniture (if the place is unfurnished). Factor in travel expenses if your apartment is far from campus.

Parent’s Home

If you choose a college in your hometown, you don’t have to go through the hassle of moving. The room you grew up in is familiar and private, which may make it easier to cope with the college adjustment. Because you are separated from college life, there will be fewer distractions.

But living in your parents’ home generally means your college experience is confined to classes. You’ll have minimal out-of-class interaction with other students so you’ll miss many experiences that accompany traditional college housing options. However, commuting from your parents’ home is clearly the least expensive housing option.

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Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.