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How much will college cost?

In 2019/20, the College Board reported the average public 4-year in-state, on-campus “all in” college cost was $26,590. When we originally wrote this article in 2017, the cost was $24,610. For private schools, the cost was $53,980 ($49,320 in 2017). So what does “all in” mean? Aren’t we just looking at tuition and room and board? Nope. In order to answer the question “how much will college cost?”, we must take a closer look at all the parts included in this pricing.

Source: Trends in College Pricing 2019, College Board, November 2019


Tuition is the first thing you think of when considering college costs. Tuition is simply the cost of college instruction and is based on a unit cost like per credit hour. The average credit hour cost is $594. If one unit or credit hour costs $594, a three-credit course will cost $1,782, a four-credit course $2,376.

Out-of-state tuition is roughly twice as expensive as in-state tuition. Some colleges have agreements to recognize out-of-state students at the in-state rate.

Full time students are often charged a flat rate for tuition–covering anywhere from 12 to 18 credits. If a student takes less than 12 credit hours, they will pay the per credit hour price. If they take more than 18 credits, they will pay the flat rate plus any extra. The details vary from school to school.

Full time students paying a flat rate need to be sure to get their monies worth. Taking 18 credit hours provides the most bang for their buck but may be a strain on their workload. Taking only 12 hours may be costing them more per credit hour than if they didn’t have the flat rate, and they probably won’t graduate in four years if taking only 12 hours per semester.

Room and Board

A student needs a place to sleep/live and food to eat. Pretty straight forward? Maybe not.

For freshmen, deciding where to live their first year is usually not an option. The majority of colleges will require students live on-campus unless their home is close to the campus (often within 50 miles). An increasing number of colleges are also requiring sophomores to stay in the dorms.

On-campus housing is usually more expensive than having an apartment off campus, but it can avoid unanticipated costs and be more convenient. Another benefit is resident assistant supervision and support.

The price of housing and meals makes “up a large proportion of the increase in the cost” of college. While governments are blustering about rising college costs and colleges make grand announcements about freezing tuition, room charges remain unchecked increasing faster than the rate of inflation.

Colleges are building impressive new dorms with all the amenities to attract students. Hello rock climbing walls and lazy rivers! In this highly competitive environment where colleges must attract students to survive, they are in an arms race of amenities. And costs increase as a result.

When researching colleges, examine their different room options and costs. They will usually spell out the various choices on their websites.

Living off campus might save some money. The rent is lower, but remember additional costs like parking, gas, utility bills, absent roommates, and summer rent can come as a surprise.

Now to one of a college student’s favorite topics…food!

Referred to as “board,” meal plan choices allow for a lot of customization for a student. What kind of an eater is a student? How often will they visit a dining hall? Do they eat three meals a day? Or maybe all day long? Maybe an unlimited plan is right for them. Maybe they only eat twice a day and not on weekends? Then a meal plan with a certain number of swipes per week may be adequate.

Meal plan choices allow a student to eat at the university’s dining hall facilities, and colleges have created a vast array of options in their meal plans. A peek at Temple’s meal plan website, show a slew different meal plan options to choose from. Talk about customization!

In today’s college world, students also have access to many different chain restaurants on campus–Starbucks, Panda Express, and Subway to name a few. As part of many meal plans, colleges will include “dining dollars” or funds that students can use at these specialty eateries.

Finally, when students decide to not live on campus anymore, they will be in the real world of grocery shopping, eating out, and budgeting. A time for life lessons!

How do parents want to handle the food costs? They may want to give their student a lump sum amount at the beginning of the semester and allow their  student to be responsible for their budget. They may want to do a per month or per week “food allowance,” or they may even want your student to be responsible for this cost themselves. Depends on what will work best for a student and their family.

Rather than taking a stab in the dark at an estimated cost, have them try to get a handle on the cost to feed students when they are at home and use that as a base. The average college and university charges about $4,500, or $18.75 per day, for a three-meal-a-day dining contract that covers the eight months or so of a typical academic year.

Now fees…

College fees are very diverse. They are the hidden cost you may not always be aware of and may add up to $2,000 or $3,000 to the total price.

They can include (quite a list!):

  • Course fees (science labs or art classes)
  • Parking on campus
  • Orientation
  • Student ID
  • Library
  • Campus facilities & transportation (like a campus shuttle)
  • Environmental fees
  • Support programs
  • Legal services
  • Computer or tech fees (wi-fi)
  • Commencement
  • Student government
  • Athletics or spirit programs
  • Health insurance

Not all colleges will charge for all of these…this is just a sampling. When looking at a college’s website, know that the estimated fees listed may vary for your student based on what courses they select. Some fees will be waivable like health insurance, but most are mandatory.


In the 2019/20 report from the College Board referenced above, the average annual cost for college textbooks at a 4-year university was $1,240. Online digital textbooks are a great option, and we are seeing more and more of them. One of the culprits for rising textbook costs are books bundled with “access codes.” The access codes expire at the end of the semester so students cannot resell the book.

On-campus bookstores will be the most convenient, but they may be the most expensive option. Families can also check out other options like renting books, used books, or shopping websites like or to save on costs.

529 tip: Remind families to be sure to save those textbook receipts to reimburse their purchase with funds from their 529 plan. Books are a qualified expense. Request reimbursement the same year as the purchase.

Personal and Transportation Expenses

Personal and transportation expenses are another category of costs you may see on a college’s website. These numbers are estimates created by colleges to capture other things students may need to pay for when they go to college including clothing, personal items, and entertainment.

Although hard to estimate, be aware of the additional costs a family will face. Cities will be more expensive with a higher standard of living and extras like public transportation. Certain regions of the country will be more expensive than others as well. If a student is going to college far away, they’ll want to keep possible transportation costs to and from in mind as well.

When pulling all these number together, remember the sticker price is rarely what a family will pay. But it gives them a starting point in their research and college search.

Originally published 8/2017
Updated 1/2020

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