How Much Does College Cost? Important Factors to Guide Your Decision

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn more about how to understand the total cost of attending college.

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Many factors go into the cost of college. Beyond tuition and fees, you may be responsible for other expenses, such as housing, meal plans, health insurance, and books. Due to these variables, it’s often best to understand the cost of attendance rather than look solely at the cost of tuition and fees alone. 

Let’s review how you can learn more about what you might pay to earn your bachelor’s degree, how you can reduce your overall cost, and whether college is worth the cost for you. 

What is the total cost of college? 

Many colleges and universities offer two different ways to understand the total cost of college: cost of tuition and cost of attendance. While tuition and fees look at the academic charges you’ll need to pay, cost of attendance looks at the entire picture. 

Your specific cost of attendance will depend on where you go to school, the type of housing you choose (if you’re relocating), whether or not you participate in a campus meal plan, and other factors. 

Cost of attendance may include:

  • Tuition 

  • Fees

  • Books and materials 

  • Housing (room and board)

  • Meal plans

  • Health insurance 

  • Parking pass and transportation expenses

  • Additional living expenses 

How to calculate your cost of college

Each institution should outline what they charge per academic year for tuition and fees as well as room and board. Many also now provide a sample budget so you can get an idea of additional costs, like personal expenses and transportation. You can find this information by searching for your school’s name and “cost of attendance.” 

In-state students tend to pay less than out-of-state students, and public institutions tend to cost less than private ones. Below, you’ll find the average annual costs for tuition and fees, and room and board for the 2020-2021 academic year in the United States: 

Tuition and feesRoom and board
Two year in-state$3,800$9,330
Four year in-state$10,740$11,950
Four year out-of-state$27,560$11,950

*All data from College Board

Outside of that information, you will want to research what annual health insurance, a meal plan, and a parking or transportation pass cost, as these are also typically controlled by the institution. 

Health insurance is mandatory at most institutions in the US. However, you can submit a waiver proving that you have health insurance through your family or a third party and avoid that fee. The average price of a college meal plan is $563 per month and includes breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, though many institutions offer ways to tailor plans to meet your needs [1]. The amount you’ll spend on books and materials, like notebooks, will depend on your course requirements. The average student spends between $628 and $1,471 each year on books [2]. 

Beyond those costs, think about your lifestyle. How much would you comfortably need each month? What additional bills might you be responsible for, such as your cell phone plan? Understanding your personal expenses can help you build a useful budget of living expenses into your overall cost of college.  

Ways to reduce the overall cost of college

There are several ways to reduce the overall cost of college. Let’s review your potential options. 

Financial aid 

If you’re a US citizen or permanent resident and you plan on attending an accredited school in the US, Canada, or approved territory, you can submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is due by June 30 each year. FAFSA determines your eligibility for financial assistance and may offer you grants, scholarships, work-study opportunities, or federal student loans. 

Learn more: What Is Accreditation: Guide to Accreditation and Alternatives

Part-time work

Many students work part-time while going to college to help cover some of the costs associated with attendance. Whether taking a paid internship or working on-campus in some capacity, it can be beneficial to develop important professional experience, which you can use to transition into a full-time job after college. 

Learn more: Jobs to Pay for College

Early graduation 

The longer it takes to finish your degree, the more you will end up paying for college. While undergraduate degrees are designed to be completed in four or five years, a growing percentage of students are taking longer to graduate, which can add to the overall total cost. There are ways to shorten the amount of time it takes to earn your degree, including taking advantage of summer semesters, transferring any high school AP courses for credit, and more. Learn more about how to earn college credits faster

Community college

The first two years of your four-year degree program will involve working through several required general courses to broaden your knowledge before you begin focusing on your major. Some students opt to complete their first two years at a community college, earning their associate degree before transferring to a four-year school. 

Community colleges often offer in-state students more affordable rates in terms of tuition, and in many states, certain community colleges are free for qualifying students. While not widely available, some community colleges have also started offering bachelor’s degrees in specific subjects, which may be more affordable than a four-year college or university. 

Online degree programs

Online learning has never been so abundant. In addition to the growing number of online colleges, more brick-and-mortar institutions now offer online bachelor’s degree options in several majors. Because these programs and schools do not have the same overhead that in-person learning often requires, they often cost less to attend. Thanks to the flexible schedule and self-paced nature of learning, you may also find it easier to work part- or full-time around your studies. 

On Coursera, you can enroll in open courses that stack into degree programs to help you decide whether the program is right for you. Many certificates and courses come with ACE Credit Recommendation, meaning you can earn a recommendation of college credits for completing the program that may transfer to an accepting college or university. 

Learn more: 10 Surprising Benefits of Online Learning

Is the cost of college worth it?

Mounting student loan debt in recent decades has led many to question whether college is worth it. The majority of students turn to student loans to help finance their education. In fact, in 2020, 55 percent of students graduated with student debt [3]. Earning a bachelor’s degree can require a great deal of time and money, and may not always be the best choice for every individual. However, there are many long-term benefits to attending college: 

Lifetime earnings

Bachelor’s degree holders earn more on a weekly basis than high school graduates and associate degree holders [4]. Taken over the course of a lifetime, that difference adds up. The journal Demography published a study in 2015 that showed men with a bachelor’s degree earned nearly $1 million more than high school graduates. Women with a bachelor’s degree made less than men. However, they still grossed much more than high school graduates: $1.43 million to $800,000 [5]. 

High-paying jobs

Many high-paying jobs require a bachelor’s degree. The degree can signal to employers the time you’ve taken to acquire important subject knowledge while refining important technical and workplace skills. In fact, Georgetown University estimated that 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education, according to its 2020 report. [6]. 

Career advancement

While attitudes about needing a bachelor’s degree for an entry-level job have slowly been changing, leading a growing number of companies to do away with the requirement, the credential can be helpful when it comes to career advancement. As you pursue senior and managerial roles, employers may expect to see a bachelor’s degree or higher.  

Learn more: Is a Bachelor’s Degree Worth It?

Explore further 

Learn more about affordable and flexible online bachelor’s degrees options from respected universities on Coursera. Sign up for an information session today to learn more.  

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Article sources

1. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of Food Per Month for a College Student,” Accessed August 24, 2022. 

2. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of College Textbooks,” Accessed August 24, 2022. 

3. College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid in 2021,” Accessed August 25, 2021. 

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays,” Accessed August 25, 2022. 

5. Demography. “Education and Lifetime Earnings in the United States,” Accessed August 25, 2022. 

6. Georgetown University. “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020,” Accessed August 25, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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