Average Cost of a 4 Year University

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What is the Average Cost of College? - College Ave

The average cost of a four-year university is currently $27,300 per year. This number has risen by 2.5% over the past year. Students must also factor in housing costs, which range from $4,400 to $10,000 per year depending on where they choose to live.

Students should consider their options carefully before choosing a particular school and major because certain degrees may not be as lucrative as others. For example, students who have majored in art history have an average starting salary of $43,400 after graduation. Meanwhile, graduates with degrees in math make only $61,700 when they enter the workforce.

In addition to financial concerns, students should also consider their post-college plans when deciding where they want to attend school and what they want to study there. The best way for students to do this is by taking advantage of the many resources available online today!

college tuition inflation

The price of bacon is rising faster than tuition at Harvard, highlighting yet another way the pandemic has upended traditional metrics of inflation.

The growth in the cost of college had outpaced inflation for decades until Covid. Tuition and fees rose 0.6% on average annually over the last 12 months compared with a 3.2% increase in U.S. prices overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s the largest gap between the two since the late 1970s and early ’80s when annual inflation peaked around 15%.

Broader inflation is rising due to supply-chain issues and labor shortages that have caused prices to spike in everything from food to furniture. That’s been coupled with soaring consumer demand during the pandemic, fueled by unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus.

Colleges, meanwhile, have seen fewer enrollments in the pandemic, thanks in large part to remote learning and difficulty for international students to get to the U.S.

Average Cost Of A 4 Year University

Average Cost of Tuition

Tuition and fees make up the bulk of most college students’ educational expenses.

  • The average cost of attendance at any 4-year institution is $25,362.
  • The average cost of tuition at any 4-year institution is $20,471.
    • At public 4-year institutions, the average in-state tuition and required fees total $9,308 per year; out-of-state tuition and fees average $26,427.
    • At private 4-year institutions, the average tuition and fees at a nonprofit college total $35,801 annually; at for-profit institutions, tuition and fees average $15,156 annually.
  • The average cost of tuition and fees at any 2-year institution is $6,379.
    • At public 2-year institutions, or community colleges, in-district tuition and fees average $3,412 annually; the average for in-state students is $4,444, while out-of-state students pay an average of $8,516.
    • At private 2-year institutions, students pay $17,128 in annual tuition and fees to attend nonprofit schools; for-profit colleges charge $15,821.
  • Among the comparatively few institutions that offer programs of less than 2 years, the average annual tuition and fees are $12,735.
  • Most institutions designated less-than-2-year are private, for-profit schools.
  • There are not enough data available regarding these institutions to derive much statistical meaning.
Historical costs of tuition fees room board in 2021 dollars1 on EducationData

Average Cost Of College 2021 & Tuition

General Statistics:

Average Cost: Yearly & Total

During 2019-2020 academic year the average yearly price of tuition, fees, room, and board was $30,500 but can vary widely:

  • $12,720 for public 2-year institution (in-state rate)
    • $3,730 tuition & fees
    • $8,990 room and board
  • $21,950 for public 4-year institution (in-state rate)
    • $10,440 tuition and fees
    • $11,510 room and board
  • $38,330 for public 4-year institution (out of state)
    • $26,820 tuition and fees
    • $11,510 room and board
  • $49,879 for private nonprofit 4-year institution
    • $36,880 tuition and fees
    • $12,990 room and board

The average total price for a 4-year degree is approximately $122,000.

  • $50,880 for a public 2-year institution (in-state rate)
  • $87,800 for a public 4-year institution (in-state rate)
  • $153,320 for a public 4-year institution (out of state)
  • $199.500 for a private nonprofit 4-year institution

However, these averages assume the student finishes within 4 years. Only 39% of students actually do so. In fact, nearly 60% of undergraduate students take 6 years to complete a 4-year degree.

Additionally, most students receive financial aid of some sort that offsets the total”sticker” price of tuition.

Average Cost: General Statistics

Note: The main focus of this article is on undergraduate degrees and institutions, not grad schools or programs.

  • Most colleges and universities use a dollar amount referred to as the Cost of Attendance or COA. This typically includes:
    • tuition and fees
    • room and board
    • books and supplies
  • Net price is what a student pays after financial aid, scholarships and any other assistance are applied to the account
  • Approximately $30,000 is spent per student per year in college (including contributions of both governments and individuals)
  • In 2019, the state with the highest average cost for tuition and fees was Vermont, and the lowest was North Dakota
  • Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcies
  • In the fall 2016 semester, more than one-third of enrolled college students had a direct federal loan.
  • During the 2015-2016 academic year, out-of-state students spent an average of $14,483 more each year (includes tuition, room, and board) than in-state students

Average Cost of College by Over Time

Every year, college tuition and fees continue to increase. To illustrate, here are some statistics on tuition increases between 2010 and 2020:

  • The average increase at 2-year colleges was nearly $700.00
  • For 4-year institutions, the average increase was $2,000 at public 4-year institutions and $6,200 at private 4-year institutions

When looking at the increases over a longer period of time, from 1989 to 2016, the cost to attend college has increased almost 8 times faster than wages have.

  • In 1989, the cost of a 4-year degree (adjusted for inflation) averaged $52,892
  • In 2016, the cost of the same degree was nearly $104,480 (adjusted for inflation)

Average Cost of College: 2-Year Institutions

Most 2-year or community colleges are less expensive than 4-year institutions. For students looking for 2-year degrees, certificates, or vocational training, a 2-year institution may meet their needs. They are also an excellent option for students who choose to take their general education coursework and transfer to a 4-year institution. Many 4-year institutions participate in a 2+2 program with 2-year institutions to make transferring a seamless process.

  • In 2020, the average tuition rate at 2-year institutions was $3,660
    • Between 2009 and 2019, the average cost of tuition and fees at 2-year institutions had increased by nearly 34% (adjusted for inflation)
    • Average combined financial aid and tax benefits increased by nearly 50% between 2009 and 2019
  • Full-time students enrolled at 2-year institutions may not pay room and board at the college but must still pay for their rent and other living expenses, with an average cost of $12,320 per year
  • In 2019, approximately 8.7 million students in the US enrolled at 2-year institutions
  • As many as 50% of students at 2-year institutions received enough financial aid and grant money to cover tuition and fees
  • Full-time students enrolled at 2-year institutions receive an average of $4,050 in financial aid and grant money
  • The average rate of community college tuition is lower than the rate for public and private 4-year institutions in every state

Some states now offer tuition-free “College Promise” programs at 2-year institutions that will cover tuition costs after federal grants and financial aid have been applied.

  • Students must meet eligibility requirements, which may include a minimum GPA, demonstrated financial need, or have established/maintain residency
  • As of 2018, 24 states have a Promise program for study at 2-year institutions

Average Cost of College: 4-Year Institutions

When calculating the COA (Cost of Attendance), an institution’s financial aid office calculates how much it will cost for a student to attend. The cost for room and board generally does not vary as much as actual tuition cost from school to school. However, some schools are much more expensive, such as New York School of Interior Design, which charges upwards of $21,00 for room and board.

Private College Tuition vs Public College Tuition

Private schools don’t receive as much government funding as public schools do, whether it’s from the state or federal government, or both, including tax dollars. For the most part, private colleges and universities are more expensive than public institutions.

  • For the 2018-2019 academic year, students paid an average of $35,830 in private school tuition versus an average of $10,230 for students attending public colleges
  • Private school students, on average, paid over three times more for tuition than their public college counterparts
  • During the 1988-1989 academic year, private students paid an average of $17,010 in tuition costs compared to $3,360 paid, on average, by public students
    • Private college students paid 80 percent or nearly $17,000 more to attend a private school than their peers who attended public colleges
    • The gap remains at 71 percent for the 2018-2019 academic year—meaning that private school students still tend to pay around 71 percent more on average

Tuition rates can vary widely among private schools, depending on size, location, subjects covered, and type of institution. To illustrate, a few schools are included in the private college tuition comparison below to illustrate the variation in tuition charged at private schools.

In-State versus Out of State Tuition

There is a significant difference between in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition at a public college or university. For students who are not residents of the state where they are attending school, the tuition and fees are frequently much higher.

During the 2015-2016 school year, in-state tuition (including room and board) averaged around $19,548 per year vs out-of-state tuition averaging around $34,031 per year.

Within the US, there are regional and state reciprocity agreements with various requirements and stipulations for discounted or in-state tuition rates within the regions. Below are some examples:

  • The Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market allows residents of 15 member states in-state tuition at any of the participating colleges in any of the other member states—provided the out-of-state school offers a degree program the student could not get in their home state.
  • In New England, the Regional Student Program includes Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Like the Academic Common Market, the school must offer a degree program not available in the student’s home state.
  • Other states offer a reduction of the out-of-state tuition for bordering or regional states, although students are still paying a higher rate than in-state tuition. Those include the Midwest Student Exchange Program and the Western Undergraduate Exchange Program. These programs don’t typically require students to pursue a degree that’s not offered in their home state.

Note: North Dakota participates in both the Midwest Student Exchange AND the Western Undergraduate Exchange.

Other Qualifications for In-State Tuition:

There are other qualifications for in-state tuition:

  • Active-duty servicemembers and members of their family may qualify to receive in-state tuition, regardless of whether they are permanent residents of the state they are currently stationed in
  • Eighteen states offer in-state tuition for undocumented students, along with other scholarships and financial aid options, however:
    • Three states (Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana) have laws that prohibit colleges in their state from offering in-state tuition to undocumented students
    • Two states don’t allow undocumented students to enroll in college at all—Alabama and South Carolina

Room and Board: On-Campus vs. Off-Campus

In areas where rents are sky-high and housing is scarce, living on-campus represents a much more affordable option. To illustrate:

  • A Stanford University student would pay over $16,500 for a shared apartment to live off-campus compared to $8,301 living on-campus
  • For Columbia University students a shared apartment off-campus could cost $17,000 for 9 months compared to $9,400 to live on-campus

Nearly 60% of colleges do not accurately represent off-campus living costs. Accordingly, students should research local rental markets.

As an example, the University of California-Berkeley estimated a student would pay $7,184 to live off-campus. In fact, it would cost a student $12,375 with a roommate in a two-bedroom apartment.

  • 87% of students live off-campus
  • Room and board charges have doubled at four-year colleges even after adjusting for inflation
  • In 1980, the average cost for room and board was $4,800 compared to $9,798 in 2014 (adjusted for inflation)
  • Between 2003 and 2014, increases for room charges at 4-year colleges outpaced the growth of rent prices
    • In 2003 the average college room charge was 29% under median rent
    • In 2014, the average college room charge was only 7% under median rent

The Advantages of Renting Off-Campus

It may be cheaper in some regions to live off-campus. However, this only applies to areas where rent is affordable for students. The average annual room and board costs for the 2018-2019 academic year were $11,140. For students attending college in areas where average rent exceeds $1,000 a month that could represent significant savings. Additionally, costs can be cut by 50 percent or more if a student has one or more roommates to split rent with, while room and board on campus is a flat rate regardless of how many roommates share a dorm room.

In 2018, there were 12 states whose 2018 rents averaged below $700/month, for an annual rent cost of $8,400.

Beyond Sticker Price:

Living expenses such as housing costs, transportation and food occur for both students and non-students. Additional expenses may include dorm room or apartment furnishings or amenities, clothing, registration fees for certain exams/certifications, and of course- books.

However, one of the largest expenses for students enrolled in college is the time they are not spending working. It is increasingly difficult for many students to balance the cost of living with soaring tuition and fees.

  • Nearly 25% of high school students considered middle class indicated they were not planning to attend college because of the expense
  • In 2018, an average of 45% of students experienced frequent food insecurity
  • In 2018 56% of students experienced housing insecurity and 17% were homeless in the previous year
  • Over 50% of students from 2-year institutions and 44% of 4-year students worried about running out of food
  • Nearly 50% of students could not afford balanced meals
  • Military veteran students were 61% more likely to experience housing insecurity and 23% more likely to experience homelessness

Why is College So Expensive?

Some of the biggest contributors to increasing costs of attending college include:

  • Increased demand: in 2017, there were 5.1 million more students attending college than in 2000
  • Increased availability of financial aid for students represents increased funding from federal sources for institutions
    • For-profit schools charge 75% more in tuition where students are eligible for federal loans
  • Students increasingly attend college away from home

Even with financial aid, 70% of universities are unaffordable for most working-class and middle-class students.

Operating a college includes administrative, instructional, supplies, maintenance, construction, and other types of expenditures. Increasingly, colleges are spending more on administrative fees.

  • “Ancillary services” such as amenities to attract higher-paying students can account for as much as $3,000 per student per year
  • Marketing and fundraising
  • Competitive salaries for top coaches and leadership

Teaching/instructional costs are frequentlydisproportionate with administrative costs.

  • Between 1975 and 2005, the number of administrators had increased by 85% and administrative staffers by over 240%
  • Between 1993 and 2007, instructional spending per student increased by 39% compared to 61% increase in administrative spending per student
  • Colleges are increasingly hiring adjunct professors (non-tenure track and paid less than full-time professors) to save money
    • Between 2003 and 2013, non-tenure track faculty (adjuncts) had increased from 45% to 62% in 4-year schools
    • In 2018, 73% of all faculty positions were non-tenure track (adjuncts or yearly contracted)
    • In 2016, higher-ed institutions hired 21,511 full-time tenure-track faculty compared to 30,865 non-tenure track faculty

The Expense to Taxpayers

Most public institutions receive funding from state and local governments.

  • 98% of state funding for higher education funding and 78% of federal higher education funding went to public institutions
  • In 2017, local and state governments spent approximately 10% or $297 billion on higher education compared to 1977, when these expenditures were closer to $105 billion (adjusted for inflation)
    • For most states, this was the third-largest expenditure, behind elementary/secondary education and public welfare
    • 88% of this spending went towards operational costs and 12% went towards capital outlays (construction and maintenance)
  • In 2017, 85% of higher education spending occurred at the state level (federal funding is typically provided by financial aid to students)

Most public institutions receive federal funding through financial aid to students.

  • The number of FTE (full-time equivalent) students increased by 45% from 2000 to 2012:
    • Revenue per FTE student from federal sources increased by 32% compared to a decline in state revenue of 37%
    • Total federal revenue increased from $43 billion to $83 billion (adjusted for inflation)
  • Federal loans increased by 375% between 1990 and 2013 compared to 60% enrollment growth

In Summary…

College can be expensive. However, there are a lot of ways to make it more affordable. There are financial aid options including grants, scholarships, and loans available to help offset the expense or pay for it altogether. For example, college tuition at 2-year institutions can be free for students who meet the criteria.

The decision to live off or on campus should be based on the actual cost of living and rents in the area. In areas where rents are high and housing scarce, it may make sense for full-time undergraduate students to live on campus at least for their first year or two. Colleges are not always correct in their estimates for the total cost a student must pay to attend.

10 Benefits of Having a College Degree | Bachelor's Degree Completion

Average Cost of College in America

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Our researchers found that the average cost of college for the 2017–2018 school year was $20,770 for public schools (in-state) and $46,950 for nonprofit private schools, only including tuition, fees, and room and board. Each year, school costs have continued to increase, even accounting for inflation. We took a look at higher education data from the College Board to provide a deeper understanding of the costs and the differences between states, school types and degrees.

Average Cost of College Statistics and Key Findings

  • Average Total Cost of Public Colleges: $25,290 (in-state) $40,940 (out-of-state)
  • Average Total Cost of Private Colleges: $50,900
  • More than 19.9 million students are projected to attend American colleges and universities in fall 2018, with around 6.7 million going to two-year institutions and 13.3 million going to four-year institutions.
  • The majority of students pay between $6,000 and $15,000 in tuition for both public and private schools in the United States.
  • New England has the highest tuition cost for both two-year and four-year public schools, with an average of $5,370 and $12,990, respectively.
6 European Countries With Virtually Free College Tuition

A Breakdown of the Average Costs of College

To give you a quick overview of the costs for a full year of college at a four-year public and private nonprofit college, we’ve included a breakdown of all costs associated with going to college. This includes the average college tuition cost, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses.

Public two-year (in-district)Public four-year (in-state)Public four-year (out-of-state)Private four-year
Room and board$8,400$10,800$10,800$12,210
Books and supplies$1,420$1,250$1,250$1,220
Other expenses$2,410$2,100$2,100$1,700
Total cost$17,580$25,290$40,940$50,900

Community colleges are primarily two-year public institutions but some schools also award four-year degrees and there are private community colleges. According to Community College Review, the average cost of community college is $4,864 (in-state) and $8,622 (out-of-state) per year for public community colleges. For private community colleges, the average tuition is around $15,460 per year.Hot TipFinding the Best Grants for College

Average Cost of College by Region

The average tuition cost in each region for two-year and four-year schools in the United States varied minimally. However, New England had both the highest in-district and in-state average tuition costs, not including room and board, for both two-year and four-year public colleges. In contrast, the South had the lowest public four-year tuition at $9,290, while the West had the lowest average tuition for public two-year schools at $2,380.

Chart Showing Average Cost of College by Region

According to data from the College Board, western states had the highest public two-year and four-year tuition increase over 10 years, increasing 62% and 60%, respectively. Meanwhile, public two-year and four-year colleges in the Midwest only increased by 22% and 21% within the past 10 years. Keep in mind that the West is home to some of the top public schools in the country, namely the University of California system.

Average Cost of College by State

The average cost of public colleges in the United States is $9,970 for in-state tuition and $25,620 for out-of-state tuition, not including room and board. According to the data, New Hampshire has the highest in-state tuition of $16,070, which is around $3,500 more than South Dakota’s out-of-state tuition, $12,480. Wyoming has the lowest in-state tuition, costing only $5,220. In contrast, the highest out-of-state tuition and the most expensive average tuition on the list was from Vermont, with a price tag of $38,990.

StateIn-state tuitionOut-of-state tuition
New Hampshire$16,070$28,430
New Jersey$13,870$26,600
New Mexico$6,920$20,060
New York$7,940$19,500
North Carolina$7,380$24,520
North Dakota$8,200$19,420
Rhode Island$12,230$28,910
South Carolina$12,610$31,350
South Dakota$8,450$12,480
West Virginia$7,890$21,550

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Average Cost of College by Degree Type

The average cost of college for public colleges and universities is similar for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The greatest differences lie in private nonprofit schools, which illustrates how costly a doctoral degree is compared to a master’s and bachelor’s.

Chart Showing Average Cost of College by Degree

Average Cost of College by Flagship University

University of Wyoming had the lowest in-state tuition while University of South Dakota had the lowest out-of-state tuition, which lines up with the state rankings. Unlike the state rankings, Pennsylvania State University had the highest in-state tuition at $18,436, with the University of New Hampshire ranking as a close second. And the University of Michigan had the most expensive out-of-state tuition out of all the flagship universities.

Flagship universityIn-state tuitionOut-of-state tuition
University of Alaska Fairbanks$7,518$22,908
University of Alabama$10,780$28,100
University of Arkansas$9,062$24,308
University of Arizona$11,877$35,307
University of California: Berkeley$13,928$41,942
University of Colorado at Boulder$12,086$36,220
University of Connecticut$14,880$36,948
University of Delaware$13,160$33,150
University of Florida$6,381$28,658
University of Georgia$11,818$30,392
University of Hawaii at Manoa$11,732$33,764
University of Iowa$8,964$30,608
University of Idaho$7,488$23,812
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign$15,868$31,988
Indiana University: Bloomington$10,533$34,845
University of Kansas$12,069$29,776
University of Kentucky$11,772$27,856
Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College$11,374$28,051
University of Massachusetts: Amherst$15,596$33,662
University of Maryland: College Park$10,399$33,606
University of Maine$10,902$30,282
University of Michigan$14,826$47,476
University of Minnesota: Twin Cities$14,417$26,603
University of Missouri: Columbia$11,008$26,595
University of Mississippi$8,300$23,564
University of Montana$7,063$24,943
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill$9,005$34,588
University of North Dakota$8,447$20,324
University of Nebraska: Lincoln$8,901$24,201
University of New Hampshire$18,067$32,637
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey: New Brunswick Campus$14,638$30,579
University of New Mexico$7,146$22,037
University of Nevada: Reno$7,538$21,726
State University of New York at Buffalo$9,828$27,338
Ohio State University: Columbus Campus$10,591$29,695
University of Oklahoma$11,538$26,919
University of Oregon$11,571$34,611
Pennsylvania State University Park$18,436$33,664
University of Rhode Island$13,792$30,042
University of South Carolina$12,262$32,362
University of South Dakota$8,772$12,020
University of Tennessee: Knoxville$12,970$31,160
University of Texas at Austin$10,414$36,984
University of Utah$8,824$28,067
University of Virginia$16,076$46,604
University of Vermont$17,740$41,356
University of Washington$10,974$35,538
University of Wisconsin: Madison$10,533$34,783
West Virginia University$8,376$23,616
University of Wyoming$5,217$16,827

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Distribution of Students by Tuition

The majority of four-year undergraduate students are paying between $6,000 and $15,000 for tuition and fees with a median of $12,090. However, as we look deeper into the data, mostly public college students pay these costs, while private nonprofit students are more spread out near the higher costs.

Chart Showing Distribution of Student by Tuition and Fees

Public four-year institutions have a median tuition cost of $10,270, while private nonprofit four-year schools have a median that is over three times that amount at $35,260. The majority of students at private nonprofit four-year schools are paying roughly between $33,000 and $51,000.

Published tuition and feesPublicPrivatePrivate and Public
Under $6,0002.60%3.10%2.80%
$6,000 to $8,99935.30%4.70%25.60%
$9,000 to $11,99929.80%2.50%21.10%
$12,000 to $14,99914.80%1.50%10.60%
$15,000 to $17,9994.10%2.60%3.60%
$18,000 to $20,9992.70%2.90%2.80%
$21,000 to $23,9992.40%3.50%2.80%
$24,000 to $26,9991.70%6.80%3.30%
$27,000 to $29,9992.10%7.80%3.90%
$30,000 to $32,9991.20%9.20%3.70%
$33,000 to $35,9992.00%6.70%3.50%
$36,000 to $38,9990.40%7.80%2.70%
$39,000 to $41,9990.40%7.10%2.50%
$42,000 to $44,9990.10%7.00%2.30%
$45,000 to $47,9990.30%6.00%2.10%
$48,000 to $50,0000.00%7.60%2.40%
$51,000 and over0.00%13.00%4.10%
What is the Average Cost of College? - College Ave

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How Have Average College Costs in America Changed Over the Years?

In only 40 years, the average cost of college, including tuition and room and board, has increased over 150% for both public and private four-year colleges. Between 1977 and 1978, the average cost of a four-year degree from a public school was $8,180, while the cost for a nonprofit private school was $17,010. The cost is now more than twice that amount and is moving up to three times that cost.

Chart Showing Average Cost of College Over the Years


how much has college tuition increased in the last 10 years

Most students see college education as the “golden ticket” to the American dream. The prevailing line of thinking is that getting a degree—any degree—will lead a college graduate to financial prosperity. In the past, students had little to rely on than anecdotes when deciding which college to attend. This is because prior to 2015, colleges did not report on median earnings by major, which could have made it possible for students to do a cost-benefit analysis of getting higher education (Akers, 2020).

Seeing college costs from an objective standpoint will help students brace for or even avoid the detrimental effects of rising college tuition. Foremost of these is taking on a staggering amount of student loans. According to data from the Federal Reserve, student loan debt stood at $1.64 trillion, exceeding the value of outstanding car loans and credit card debt (Duffin, 2020).

With ballooning student loans, graduates tend to delay making major life decisions, such as buying a home, getting married, or having children. Other effects of rising college tuition include students enrolling at less expensive community colleges or dropping out of college altogether. Undergraduates will also consider starting a business while graduates might be forced to work outside their college major (Online College, n.d.).

The cost of a college education has been steadily rising. In 1963 for instance, tuition at a four-year public college cost $1,286 per year, which amounts to $10,555 when adjusted for inflation. This means that college costs grew by 140.6% when inflation was considered. From 1989 to 2016. The costs of college grew eight times faster than wages (Bustamante, 2019).

For full-time undergraduate students in the school year 2019-2020, tuition hikes across all sectors were consistent. Published tuition and fees for public two-year in-district, public four-year in-state, and private nonprofit four-year colleges increased by at least 20% in the past 10 years, according to college tuition inflation data from the Manhattan Institute. The costs only get steeper compared to 20 years ago. Published tuition and fees for public two-year in-district colleges grew by 47% when adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, those for public four-year in-state rose by 102% while private nonprofit four-year colleges grew by 54% (Akers, 2020).

However, it is worth mentioning that average tuition fees for school years 2019-20 and 2021-21 had the lowest increase in 30 years. During this period, average published charges for tuition and fees for public four-year in-state colleges increased by only 1.1% while private nonprofit colleges had a minimal increase of 2.1%. This data suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has halted rising college costs, though experts say that this effect may only be temporary (Hess, 2020).

cost of education in america

While the US remains the world’s most popular destination for international students, it’s also among the most expensive choices. However, although the headline costs of studying in the US may be daunting, often involving a string of five-digit numbers, it’s worth checking all the facts on fees and funding options before you make up your mind, as it may work out cheaper than you initially think.

In HSBC’s 2018 report, The Value of Education, the US again emerged among the top choices for parents considering university abroad for their child – but also one of the most expensive, with students spending an average of US$99,417 over the course of their degree.

With most undergraduate degrees at public universities costing $26,290 (according to student support organization College Board), for many prospective students attending university in the US may seem about as realistic as crashing at the White House while you look for a place to live.

Average fees at US universities, 2018-19
 Public two-year collegesPublic four-year colleges (in-state fees)Public four-year colleges (out-of-state fees)Private non-profit four-year colleges
Tuition and other fees$3,660$10,230 $26,290 $35,830 
Room and board$8,660 $11,140 $11,140 $12,680 
Total (per year)$12,320 $21,370 $37,430 $48,510 
Source: College Board

When transport and other living expenses are factored in, College Board estimates the following annual budgets for undergraduate students in 2018/19:

  • $17,930 (community college)
  • $25,890 (in-state students at a four-year public college)
  • $41,950 (out-of-state students at a four-year public college)
  • $52,500 (private non-profit four-year college)

While these averages provide a helpful overview of the broad range of study costs in the US, it’s worth remembering there remains significant variation in tuition fees charged by each type of institution. At the most prestigious public universities, for instance, fees may be just as high as those in the private sector. For instance, the University of Michigan (one of the highest-ranked public US universities in the QS World University Rankings®) estimates fees for new out-of-state students in fall/winter 2018/19 at $49,350, on top of additional costs of $11,534 for room and board, $1,048 for books and study supplies and $2,454 for personal and miscellaneous items. This adds up to a total annual cost of $64,386, or $70,356 for graduate students.

It costs $78,200 to go to Harvard—here's what students actually pay

college tuition 1980 vs 2019

The Rising Cost of College in America

The average cost of getting a college degree has soared relative to overall inflation over the last few decades.

Since 1980, college tuition and fees are up 1,200%, while the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all items has risen by only 236%.

The Average Cost of College Over Time

Back in 1980, it cost $1,856 to attend a degree-granting public school in the U.S., and $10,227 to attend a private school after adjusting for inflation.

Since then, the figures have skyrocketed. Here’s how college tuition and the CPI have both changed since 1980:

YearAvg. Undergrad Tuition and Fees (Public)Avg. Undergrad Tuition and Fees (Private)CPI % Change (College Tuition and Fees)CPI % Change (All Items)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. News
Note: Tuition and fees are in constant 2018-19 dollars. For public schools, in-state tuition and fees are used. All CPI % change values calculated for the month of January.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest year-over-year change in college tuition and fees was recorded in June 1982 at 14.2%— and over that same time period, overall inflation was up 6.6%.

On the other hand, November 2020 saw the lowest year-over-year change in the average cost of college at 0.6%, mainly as a result of the shift to online classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, some schools are offering discounts to students, and some are even canceling scheduled tuition increases entirely in a bid to remain attractive.

average cost of college 2020

Average Cost of College Statistics and Key Findings

  • Average Total Cost of Public Colleges: $25,290 (in-state) $40,940 (out-of-state)
  • Average Total Cost of Private Colleges: $50,900
  • More than 19.9 million students are projected to attend American colleges and universities in fall 2018, with around 6.7 million going to two-year institutions and 13.3 million going to four-year institutions.
  • The majority of students pay between $6,000 and $15,000 in tuition for both public and private schools in the United States.
  • New England has the highest tuition cost for both two-year and four-year public schools, with an average of $5,370 and $12,990, respectively.

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