How much does college cost?

Figuring out how to pay for your higher education

Students and their parents (88%) continue to believe college is an important investment in the student's future. With so much agreeance on the value of college, the cost of college is probably clear-cut, too, right? Well, not so much.

Like when you’re shopping for a car, the sticker price for college won’t give you the full story on how much a college actually costs. And while college doesn’t necessarily come with the same negotiating process as shopping for a new vehicle, you can definitely feel stress or uncertainty if you’re not an expert on the different variables that go into determining the price.

For starters, and as you might expect, the choices you make about the type of college and where you’ll attend will impact how much you’ll end up paying. Decisions like private vs. public, 2- or 4-year, and in-state vs. out-of-state, can drive your college costs up or down.

How much does a college class cost?

First, you can look into the cost per credit hour. Like shopping around at different dealerships for different models, this price tag will vary, so let’s imagine the average cost of a college credit hour is $200. If a class is three credits, or credit hours, then the class cost $600.

While shopping based on credit hour can be helpful, it may be equally (if not more) beneficial to look at your total spend, or the cost it’ll take to complete your program, on average.

What is the average cost of college?

According to over 2,000 families surveyed for “How America Pays for College”, families spent an average of $28,026 on college in 2022-23.

When you’re thinking about the total cost of college, think about the extras. Consider all the expenses associated with completing your degree. Make sure to include room and board if you’re staying on campus, or transportation costs if you’ll be driving back and forth from home or an off-campus apartment. Of course, you’ll need to eat, too, so part of your budget should include the campus meal plan or groceries. You’ll also need to account for books, supplies, and other costs like lab fees, etc. Creating a monthly budget is a convenient way of estimating your future expenses and how much you’ll need to save.

College cost estimations and tools

There are a lot of tools in place to help you access higher education, and you can do it without breaking the bank. Resources include the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), scholarships, grants, and dedicated college savings accounts (like 529s).

How much should I save for college?

If college is still a few years away, using a college cost calculator can help you figure out how much your total cost of college will be. If college is in your near future, you’re probably already looking at different schools. Once you’ve decided on some that you’d like to apply to, it’s likely time to file the FAFSA®, which opens up on October 1 for the next academic year. This is the gateway to $150 billion in federal aid.

By filing the FAFSA®, you could potentially unlock free money for college (scholarships and grants), and the opportunity to work on campus in exchange for a paycheck you can apply toward tuition or expenses (work-study). Plus, you can see if you’re eligible for subsidized or unsubsidized federal student loans. All these details will be a part of the financial aid offer letters you’ll receive from the schools that have accepted you for admission.

Once you have your financial aid offer letters in hand, you can start comparing your options to understand the best financial aid offer, which will be determined by the total amount of expenses against the aid you can secure (and whether that aid is made up of mostly free money, or mostly loans).

Next, look for scholarships. Do this early and often, so you can drive that sticker price of college down even further with the best kind of bargaining tool: free money. Use free online search tools, like Scholarship Search by Sallie, which helps you find scholarships based on your background, major, the state you live in, and more.

When it comes to calculating how much college costs, it’s not a simple one-size-fits-all price tag. But with the right tools, and a commitment to do some homework, you can gain a clear understanding of what’s ahead and how much to save for college so you can make sure your college investment is worth every penny. And this investment, unlike cars, won’t depreciate in value once you’re off campus!

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

footnote FAFSA® is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.

footnote SLM Nitro College, LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of SLM Corporation and Nitro by Sallie Mae is a service mark of Sallie Mae Bank. SLM Corporation and its subsidiaries, including Sallie Mae Bank and SLM Nitro College, LLC are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States.

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