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What does it really cost to go to college?

Key Takeaways:

  • College costs much more than just tuition!
  • Colleges are required to calculate and publish a cost of attendance (COA), which approximates what it will cost you to attend a school for one year.
  • Tuition, fees, and room and board are typically the largest categories in the COA, but colleges can also estimate costs such as books, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses.
  • Most students do not pay the full cost of attendance.
  • You can and should estimate your actual costs using college net price calculators.

Every high school student is well aware: College is expensive. Getting your two- or four-year degree is a big commitment, both in time and money, and the price of college has enough variables to make anyone’s head spin. Higher education can pay dividends in terms of building a good career, having increased earning potential, and fostering overall life satisfaction, but the cost of getting a college degree can also mean years of student loan payments. So when it comes to understanding what a given college costs, it’s important to understand exactly what makes up the bill--and how to keep that cost manageable to limit student debt.  

What does it really cost to go to college? We at Edmit are here to help you figure that out! We’ve broken down the many pieces that impact the cost of getting a college education, so you can get a handle of what the schools that interest you actually cost--and can determine which schools are a good financial fit for your money and overall budget.

What Does "Cost of Attendance" Include?

Colleges are required to calculate and publish a cost of attendance (COA), which approximates what it will cost you to attend a school for one year. Tuition, fees, and room and board are typically the largest categories, but colleges can also estimate costs such as books, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. Every college estimates its own cost of attendance—you can think of it like an average budget.

The expenses for total cost of attendance can vary quite a bit. For instance, dorm prices in coastal cities can be far higher than what you’d pay for comparable living space in other parts of the country. Total cost of attendance can also be lower if a student lives at home. Usually the college’s estimate for COA is an average across all of these potential situations.

We will call this the published price, since this is the big number on the college website (it’s also sometimes called “list price” or “sticker price”). A college’s published price is what a student would have to come up with per year if they paid full price for everything.

All that said, the published price means very little. Very few students actually pay it.

More on that later.

Here’s what to tally up when determining the cost of attendance of colleges.


Tuition is what colleges and universities charge for instruction, including classes, seminars, and workshops. Essentially, tuition covers your classes, the education portion of your higher education experience. At many colleges, tuition is broken down by credit--for example, a three-credit undergraduate course--with a specific fee per credit. If you know the cost of one credit, and you plan on taking 15 credits per semester, you’ll be able to calculate your tuition cost for a given semester or academic calendar year (e.g., cost of one credit x 15). Feeling really ambitious? Plot the required credits out over four years to determine what it would cost to get your four-year degree.

Because we’re talking about higher education, though, it’s never quite that simple. Some colleges may charge a flat tuition rate per semester or academic year, covering a range of credits (e.g., 12 to 18). If this is the case, crunch the numbers to see what the tuition price would be for the low, median, and high range of credits--and if you have the stamina, calculate taking the maximum amount of credits to get the most for your tuition money.   

In addition, there’s another area for research: In many cases, while the sticker price for tuition may look standardized, tuition costs will vary for students at the same school. Why? There are different rates for in-state tuition versus out-of-state tuition at public colleges, and tuition discounts may be available at private colleges. When doing your own calculations for the true price of a college, be sure to know which tuition-based parameters will apply to you.  

In-State Tuition

In-state tuition refers to the tuition cost for a student who is a resident of the same state as the public college they plan to attend. For example, a high school senior living in Milton, Pennsylvania, would pay in-state tuition at Penn State University. In-state tuition is typically cheaper than out-of-state tuition.  

Out-of-State Tuition

Out-of-state tuition refers to the tuition cost for a student who does not live in the same state as the public college they attend. For example, a high school senior living in New York City would pay out-of-state tuition at Penn State University. Out-of-state tuition typically is more expensive than in-state tuition.

Private College Tuition

Private college tuition is the cost private colleges charge for teaching and instruction. Tuition at private colleges and universities can be charged by credit or by a flat rate. Typically it does not change depending on where you live.

Room and Board

If you’re planning to live on campus for some or all of your time at college, you’ll need to calculate fees for room and board.

Room Fees

Look at which dorm options are available to you--it may vary by year, area of study, and/or gender (e.g., a single-sex floor or building). Based on what you can request, are there price variations, or are dorms covered by a flat rate? If you’re not planning to live on campus, which types of off-campus housing are most cost-effective? You may be able to save money by living in a group house, shared apartment, or room rental. If you decide to live off campus, make sure to calculate anticipated monthly living expenses, such as the cost of rent, utilities, parking, and the like.  

Board Fees

If you live on campus, you may be required to purchase a meal plan. Compare the meal plan options to see which fits best with your lifestyle and food budget. When calculating meal plan costs, consider, too, your potential room: For example, if you have access to a kitchen and food storage facilities on your dormitory floor or in an on-campus suite, will you need the most robust meal plan available? If you’re living off campus and have your own kitchen, will you need a meal plan at all?

College Fees

“The parade of fees on college campuses never seems to end,” says Rochelle Sharpe of the New York Times. Do a Google search for freshman orientation fees, fees to drop a class, and commencement fees, and you’ll get millions of results from different colleges and universities. Fees can be rolled into tuition, and can be mandatory or supplementary.

Each school will have its own fee structure, so be sure to delve into the fine print to understand the fees charged at the colleges that interest you, so you don’t have any surprises later. Reach out to your college admissions or enrollment office for a full picture of which fees will be added to your bill. Compare those ancillary fees across the colleges you’re considering to get the true cost of attendance.

College Textbooks and Supplies

College textbooks and supplies (from pencils to laptops) are a necessary part of any college education, and they’re not cheap! According to the National Association of College Stores, the average textbook for the 2015-16 year cost $80 new and $51 used; for the 2016-17 year, students paid an average of $579 for school supplies. While these averages cover a wide variety of students and college majors, they’re still a good benchmark for your own textbook budget.

Take a look at your anticipated course load for the upcoming semester to estimate the types of supplies and textbooks you’ll need. You may be able to cut costs by going used or taking advantage of free resources. And don’t use your campus bookstore as a one-stop shop: Go online and comparison shop, check used booksellers and technology vendors, connect with local groups on Freecycle, and take advantage of the library, language lab, and other free or low-cost on-campus and community resources.

College Extracurriculars

Once you arrive on campus, you’ll be encouraged to get involved and take advantage of the many campus life activities. Extracurriculars could range from on-campus clubs, intramural sports, and pledging a fraternity or sorority. While it’s great to sign up and be active in the campus community, be sure to do your due diligence--does participating in those clubs and activities come with fees? Fees can come in the form of monthly dues, annual memberships, or event expenses. If so, how much will they be for the semester and/or year?

If extracurricular fees do apply (and they most likely will), find out if there are ways to offset the costs: Get in touch with the leaders of the groups that interest you to first see what you’ll be expected to contribute, then if any financial aid options can apply.

Why the Cost of Attendance Probably Doesn't Matter

Now that you've mastered this, here's a twist: the majority of students won't pay the published price! 

The price you care about is called the net price. This is the amount a student or family pays after deducting grants and scholarships (the ”free money” from the college). You might cover this cost from your savings, with money you or your student earn, or by taking out student loans.

You could be asked to pay published prices. In fact, there will almost always be colleges that want you to pay the published price. But there will almost certainly also be colleges that won’t.

Thankfully, online tools can help simplify the research process and estimate your net prices for colleges. Edmit's Edstimate is one place to start.

Each school also has a net price calculator, factoring in average tuition, room and board, fees, and financial aid awards, so you can get an estimate of what you can expect to pay at a given school. And while they’re not always tailored to your unique situation, college net price calculators can be an important first step to understanding a price benchmark for the colleges and universities that interest you.