The Total Cost of College: Tuition is Just the Beginning

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

Choosing where to go to college is likely the biggest decision in the life of any high school senior.   There are so many factors that impact this decision. You explore different schools to find one with a program well suited for your educational and career goals. You select an appealing location, whether it’s close to home or far from it. You visit several campuses to discover one that just feels right  whether that’s a large public state university or a small private liberal arts college. By weighing all of these factors, you select the school that will set you up for your future.   Of course, the cost of college is another essential factor to consider.   You know it’s important, but it may not be your primary focus. After all, you might think that college tuition is pretty consistent across schools, so shouldn’t be a determining factor in your decision. However, this isn’t the case at all.   Understanding the costs of college and how they can vary from school to school or state to state can help you make this critical decision with finances in mind. When you do, you won’t just choose a school that is a good fit for your academic interests. You’ll also find one that is a smart financial decision, which can also set you up for success after you graduate.   Learn more about the cost of college and what to expect so that you can compare different schools and prepare for the inevitable expenses that come with higher education.  

Tuition basics

Before diving into the fees associated with higher education, it’s important to understand the average cost of college tuition so that you know roughly what to expect.    Every school sets its own tuition rates, so costs will vary. You can expect to pay less at public institutions than private schools. If you choose an in-state public university, it will cost you less as a state resident than college would if you opt to attend an out-of-state public university.   Private schools do not consider the state residency status of students, so all students pay the same tuition.   According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average college tuition costs (including fees, and room and board) for the 2017–18 academic year are as follows:
  • Public undergraduate institutions: $17,797
  • Private for-profit institutions: $26,261
  • Private nonprofit institutions: $46,014
  Photo by Matt Ragland

A breakdown of college costs

Tuition isn’t the only cost you’ll have to consider when paying for college. There are expenses and fees every semester as well. Understanding this means you’ll know the total amount required each year, which will also give you an idea of how much money you will have to pay off if you secure student loans.  


Tuition is certainly the major expense you’ll be undertaking. Schools charge a per-credit-hour fee for every class you take. Most classes are three or four credits, and full-time students typically take 12 to 15 credits per semester.    So, while that per-credit-hour cost might seem reasonable, keep in mind that it needs to be multiplied by the number of credit hours taken. Also, remember that undergraduate tuition is lower than graduate tuition, so you’ll pay more when you’re pursuing that graduate degree.  

Books and supplies

Every course will include at least one textbook you are required to buy. College textbooks typically come with hefty price tags, so sourcing used books online (or in person) is smart.    Be forewarned though: Many textbooks come with a unique access code, required to complete online components, including graded assignments. Don’t buy used books if that’s the case.   Supply needs don’t stop there, however. You’ll need a laptop you can bring to class and the library. You’ll also need basic school supplies and, depending on your major, additional tools like scientific calculators.  

Room and board

If you’re living away from home, you’ll face room and board costs as well. Dorms, or on-campus housing is rented to you on a per-semester fee.    Housing costs vary from school to school and even within the campus community. For instance, if you opt for an apartment-style residence or a private bathroom, you can expect to pay more.   Most schools also provide meal plans for students. Several different meal plans are usually available, giving you a choice of how many meals per day or week you want to eat on campus. Some schools may even require on-campus residents to commit to a meal plan, so you may have no way to avoid these costs   Photo by Dollar Gill

Miscellaneous fees

You may see fees added to your semester tuition. They might be flat fees every semester or a per-credit-hour fee, which usually means that full-time students end up paying more than part-time students.  These fees can help support a variety of campus programs and help offset costs for the college or university. These may include:
  • Orientation fees
  • Freshman fees
  • Lab fees
  • Green fees (for environmental initiatives)
  • Tech fees
  • Parking and/or transportation fees (example: campus shuttle buses)
  • Activity fees
  • General campus and/or campus renovation fees
  • Athletic fees
  • Health services fees
  • Commencement fees

Remember your own expenses

College is likely your first time living on your own. There are expenses related to this that are not included in the college room and board.    But they’re important to remember so you can make a realistic budget that includes these everyday living expenses. You’ll need to think of things like:
  • Transportation costs including gas and parking, or bus fare. Remember to factor in the cost of going home a few times each term.
  • Your monthly smartphone plan.
  • A clothing budget.
  • Private health insurance.
  • Cost of entertainment (going out with friends).

How to calculate the cost of college for 4 years

College costs are usually broken down on a semester basis, which can provide only a glimpse of the overall costs of earning a four-year degree. Calculating the cost of college for four years is important so that you can afford it, either on your own, with the help of family, or with financial aid like federal or private student loans.   To calculate the cost of your undergraduate degree:
  1. Determine how many credit hours are required for your undergraduate program. Bachelor’s degree programs usually require a total of 120 to 130 credit hours to graduate. 
  2. Multiply the number of credit hours by the per-credit fee established by your college or university. 
  3. Then, tack on any semester or annual fees, multiplied by eight or four, respectively. This total gives you the tuition and fees for your 4-year college career.
  To gain an even more accurate understanding of college expenses, add on the following costs as well:
  • Room and board fees for four years if you plan to live away from home, either on or off-campus.
  • Parking fees or transportation costs for four years.
  • Book costs for four years, with an estimate of at least $500 per semester.
  • Average annual everyday living expenses for four years.
  Add these figures to your tuition and fees for an estimate of your total college costs.    Photo by Juan Ramos
  Keep in mind that many expenses are variable. For example, you might move into an off-campus rental with roommates one year that results in lower rent. You might be able to opt-out of a pricey meal plan and cook for yourself instead. Purchasing used books can save you some money, as can taking public transportation instead of owning a car.  

Bottom line

College probably seems like it costs a lot and it does. And when you add everything up, in most cases, it costs even more than the stated tuition and fees you see on your school’s website.    Don’t trust the sticker price of college tuition because you can certainly expect even more expenses during your time on campus. Fees associated with housing, food, parking, and supplies will drive up that cost fast and sometimes by thousands of dollars.    By understanding this now, you’ll have a more realistic picture of the cost of college. As a result, you’ll be able to secure loans, plan for expenses, and budget smartly to set you up for success.