Tuition is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) costs associated with attending college. Because of this, it’s important to know exactly how much of your money will be going towards this expense.
In this article, I’ll explain exactly what’s included in this “tuition” line item on your college bill. Then, I’ll get into some of the nitty-gritty details, like:
- What isn’t included with tuition
- Average college tuition cost and the wide range of possible tuition prices
- Ways to pay less for college tuition
Read on to learn more!
What's the Average College Tuition Cost?
So, tuition prices vary from school to school. Sometimes tuition prices will even vary within a certain school depending on your program or state residency.
With that being said, here are average college tuition & fee prices (2014-2015):
- $31,231 at private colleges
- $9,139 for state residents at public colleges
- $22,958 for non-state residents at public colleges
As you can see, there’s a lot of variation in the prices of tuition based on the type of school you attend. These average amounts are helpful of course - they tell you what typical costs to expect - but we can also look at extreme prices at both ends of the spectrum.
The Cheapest College Tuition Prices
Some schools offer tuition prices that are significantly lower than the averages listed above. Schools that offer such low prices usually fall into one of two categories:
- They’re public schools that receive large subsidies from local governments so that they can charge students less
- They’re private schools that have made it their mission to offer low-cost educations
The lowest tuition price I could find was $660 per semester at Dine College, in Arizona.
There are many other schools that are very inexpensive, however. The average cost of attendance on this list of low-cost schools came to only $6,077 per year.
The Most Expensive College Tuition Prices
Some schools offer tuition prices that are, frankly, intimidatingly expensive. Schools that come with such a hefty sticker price generally fit one or more of the following criteria:
- They’re private schools, which means that tuition is not subsidized by any local or state governments.
- They’re elite, competitive schools with high operating costs.
- They're small liberal arts colleges.
The highest tuition price I could find was $52,320 per year at Vassar College, in New York.
There are a lot of other schools that are close to this price range, though. This list of the most expensive colleges in the US might give you a better idea of how common it is to charge such high prices.
One caveat about these high prices, however: the same schools that charge so much for tuition often offer some really generous financial aid. Just because a college or university has a very high sticker price (also known as Cost of Attendance) doesn’t mean that students actually pay the full sticker price.
The more financial aid a student gets, the lower her Net Price, which is the amount she actually has to pay to attend a school. The Net Price includes all expenses - not just tuition - but it’s an important number to consider because it’s more relevant when it comes to your budgeting concerns.
What Does College Tuition Include?
Most of the time, when people say “tuition” they really mean “tuition and fees” - these costs are generally lumped together into one sum.
So what does tuition money actually pay for?
Well, tuition is considered the core of your college bill. It’s the fee that you pay for taking academic courses, and it may be calculated per semester (i.e. a flat rate) or per credit. Your tuition helps cover things like instructor pay, facility maintenance, and administrative costs.
The “fees” that are usually lumped in with tuition may vary from school to school. Fees are generally pretty small when compared to the cost of tuition alone. They’re billed to students in order to cover extra services that are required to run a functioning school. Some common fees include:
- Lab fees - cover extra equipment and supplies required for lab courses
- Library fees - cover expenses associated with library resources and materials, which can be quite expensive
- Registration fees - help cover administrative expenses associated with enrolling and registering students each semester
- Student organization, activity, or services fees - used to support different student organizations, clubs, sports, activities, or even visiting academics
- Technology fees - used to cover expenses associated with providing technological equipment, programs, and support on campus
- Parking fees - common at schools where students commute, they help to cover maintenance of parking areas
- Health fees - cover health and counseling services provided to students
Sometimes, students feel that they should not have to pay for particular fees if they know they won’t take advantage of certain services or resources. As unfair as that may seem, schools tend to make most fees mandatory for all students - if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to properly budget for those expenses. That being said, it couldn’t hurt to talk to the student billing office if you don’t think you should pay for a particular fee (i.e. if you’re charged a parking fee but you don’t drive to school).
Fees: Annoying add-ons that cover pretty important services (like the library that you need to do well in your classes.)
Tuition and Fees: Real-Life Examples
Here, I'll go through a couple of examples of tuition and fee breakdowns at real schools. This way, you'll be able to see exactly where students' money is going.
Example #1: Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Full-Time In-State Student
An in-state college student at ASU would be responsible for the following tuition and fees before any financial aid funds were applied:
Financial Aid Trust Fee
Student Programs Fee
Health and Wellness Fee
Student Service Facility Fee
Student Athletics Fee
Total Tuition and Fees
As you can see, the bulk of the annual cost goes towards tuition. The total fee amount comes to $994. Keep in mind that these expenses don't include things like room, board, and transportation.
Example #2: Boston University Full-Time Student
Boston University doesn't supply quite as detailed of a breakdown when it comes to tuition and fee costs. Here's what a full-time student would be responsible for at BU before any financial aid was applied:
Total Tuition and Fees
A lot more expensive than ASU, right? The major difference here is that ASU is a public school whereas BU is private. To learn more about why these sticker prices are so high, read our guide explaining why college has gotten so expensive.
Although BU might come with a pretty high sticker price, that doesn't mean the average student pays $48,436 every year for tuition and fees. At schools like BU, students' average Net Price (what students actually pay) tends to be much lower. For more info on sticker price versus Net Price, check out our guide to college costs.
What Isn't Included With Tuition?
Tuition is a big part of your college expenses, but it isn’t the only part. Depending on where you decide to go to school, you could have to budget for some other significant costs.
The most important expenses not included with tuition include:
- Room - This covers rent or housing, whether you’re living on-campus or off (this is usually combined with board if you live on-campus).
- Board - Board amounts to your food expenses, either in the form of a meal plan (if you eat on-campus) or grocery/restaurant bills if you buy your own food.
- Transportation - This includes the costs associated with traveling back and forth from campus. Transportation may just be daily travel (if you commute to school), but it also may include transport to and from campus for holidays and breaks.
- Textbooks - Textbooks are notoriously expensive - you’re responsible for getting your hands on these required materials for your classes each semester.
- Personal expenses - Presumably, you’ll spend some money on yourself each semester. Personal expenses include things like hygiene items, laundry, clothing, and entertainment.
These costs vary pretty widely depending on a lot of factors, including the type of school you go to (public versus private), where you go to school (in-state versus out-of-state), and your own personal choices (e.g. living at home versus living on campus).
To get more information about what these expenses come to, and what you can do to minimize them, check out our complete guide to college costs.
How Do You Pay Less for Tuition?
These tuition prices might have you a little freaked out at the moment, but don’t panic yet! Published tuition prices aren’t necessarily what students actually pay to attend a school - like I mentioned; your Net Price is more important than the published sticker prices.
There aren't any fire sales or flash discounts when it comes to college tuition, but there are ways to save money.
So how can you pay less for tuition and get your Net Price down to a reasonable amount? Here are your options:
Go to a School With Cheap Tuition Costs
This is perhaps the most obvious strategy - you can get your tuition costs down by applying to schools where tuition is already low. It’s easy to get information about a school’s tuition cost - it should be outlined on every school's financial aid or admissions website. You can start looking for inexpensive schools by checking out this list of the least expensive schools in the US.
Before you get started, however; you should be prepared for the drawbacks that come with this strategy. There isn't necessarily great selection when it comes to schools with cheap tuition rates - you might only find public schools that offer lower prices for residents or schools that aren't particularly prestigious.
Apply for Financial Aid
Financial aid can bring down your costs no matter where you end up - if you submit the right application, that is. Anyone can apply for federal student aid with the FAFSA, the application for the biggest source of student financial aid in the US.
Many colleges and universities use the FAFSA to award their own financial aid funds. For more information, check out our step-by-step guide to applying for financial aid.
Attend an In-State Public School
Most of the time, public schools offer subsidized tuition at very good prices to in-state residents. These prices tend to be much less expensive than prices offered to out-of-state residents.
If you’re interested in any schools close to home, you may be able to save even more money on room and board by living with family instead of paying expensive rent costs.
Attend a School With a Generous Financial Aid Program
I’ve already mentioned that some of the most expensive schools in the country also offer some of the most generous financial aid in the country. If your grades and test scores are competitive, and you’re accepted to a school that offers strong aid, much (if not all) of your financial need may be covered by the school itself.
ou should check out schools that cover 100% of financial need and schools that have the best overall financial aid programs. Come across a school that you're interested in? You can instantly estimate your chances of admission. Just google “PrepScholar [school name] admissions” to visit our interactive admissions page.
You've just processed a lot of information about tuition costs and how to lower them. If you want even more strategies for decreasing your costs, keep reading!
Scholarships are a great way to get funding for tuition, fees, room, board, textbooks, anything you use for college, really. To get your hands on scholarship money, check out our guides to top scholarships for high school juniors and seniors. You might also be interested in top minority scholarships available to high school students.
Don't have a lot of time on your hands? Submit these very easy scholarship applications.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.