What’s the Average College Tuition in the U.S.?

Here are the costs for public and private colleges, and advice for how to pay for it all.

Written by Devon Delfino / February 8, 2022
Reviewed by Mark Kantrowitz

Quick Bites

  • Tuition is the cost of college courses. But there are many other costs to consider.
  • The average yearly cost of tuition ranges from about $11,000 to almost $40,000.
  • In-state four-year public colleges tend to be a lower-cost option.
  • Grants and scholarships can help pay for college; so can earning credit for summer classes at a community college.

College application season can feel like a full-time job. And the large sticker prices that come with many university degrees don’t help, either.

Tuition and fees are an important part of that sticker price. It’s the cost of taking college classes. And it can vary depending on your student status. For example, if you’re full-time you’ll probably pay more than if you’re taking a few classes on the side.

Here’s what you should know about tuition and paying for college.

Inside this article

  1. Average college tuition
  2. How tuition changes over time
  3. What tuition leaves out
  4. Options for paying
  5. Talking with your family

Average college tuition in the U.S. by school type

Here are the average tuition and fee figures for the 2021-22 school year[1]:

Public four-year (in-state): $10,740

Public four-year (out-of-state): $27,560

Private four-year (not-for-profit): $38,070

Keep in mind that these figures are based on full-time undergraduate students. So two-year schools, like lower-cost community colleges, as well as grad schools aren’t included. Also, the range in tuition and fees can be quite large. For instance, the cost for in-state public four-year colleges ranges from $6,100 in Wyoming to $19,000 in Vermont, while for out-of-state public four-year colleges, the cost ranges from $12,940 in South Dakota to $53,230 in Michigan.[1]

How tuition changes over time

Historically, tuition rates have increased over time.[2]

Tuition increase bar graph

Over the years, tuition has been steadily increasing and financial aid funding has not grown by much. That puts more of the burden on families and, as Gail Holt, dean of financial aid at Amherst College, notes, “Family income is not necessarily growing at a rate that would be improving things for students. I think that cost is still a very big concern.”

Tip: Check out your future school’s tuition rates for the past few years to figure out if it’s likely to go up in the future, and by how much.

Even though tuition is on the rise, the pandemic has had an impact. And for once, it’s a good one. In fact, in the 2021-22 academic year, there were historically low increases in the average tuition and fee prices.[1] Part of this is because some schools either froze tuition or minimized its increase, given the circumstances.

What tuition leaves out

If you’re applying for college, you’ll have to consider many other costs on top of tuition.[3] For example:

  • Fees

  • Room and board

  • Travel costs

  • Books

  • Supplies

  • Technology

  • Daily expenses

It’s a lot to consider. But, as Holt notes, students shouldn’t just depend on the sticker price to understand costs. And depending on your expected family contribution, you may be able to cut those costs by a considerable amount. (More on that later.)

Tip: Use the College Scorecard tool or College Navigator tool to compare the net costs of colleges you’re interested in.

Options for paying for college tuition

There are several ways to cover tuition, but the best options will always come in the form of free money. Think: grants and scholarships. Those can come from your college of choice, or they might come from a community organization, corporation or foundation.

But of course, not everyone can score enough grants and scholarships to cover everything. Only about one in eight students in bachelor’s degree programs has won private scholarships and the average amount is about $4,200, according to Sound Dollar’s resident student loan expert, Mark Kantrowitz. That’s where other options can come into play. For example, if you can take advanced placement (AP) classes or summer courses at your local community college that can help decrease the amount of time you need to graduate. So your overall costs would decrease.

If tuition is a big concern, there are such things as tuition-free schools. However, you’ll still have to want to go to that particular school and be willing to live there. There may be other costs, such as room and board. Those programs may also have requirements, like being a state resident, that you’ll have to meet.[4] But it’s still an option worth looking into, especially if college seems like it might be out of reach for you or your family.

Tip: Getting a part-time job, sticking to a budget and living at home can also help with some college costs. Every bit helps, especially if it means avoiding high-interest debt, like credit cards.

If you’re having a tough time paying for tuition, student loans may be an option as well. But keep in mind that you’ll want to have a borrowing strategy to minimize that kind of debt. In general, federal student loans are the best option since they come with borrower protections you won’t usually find with private loans. That includes income-driven repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs.[5]

Talking with your family

Oftentimes, though, paying for college isn’t about one person’s finances. It’s a family decision.

“I think an important place to start is having conversations with family about expectations. Because you have to have the frame of reference for what are the limitations first,” says Holt.

Some of the questions she suggests asking include:

  • Is there a limited timeline that family members are expecting to help a student? For example, if you need an extra year to graduate, or want to pursue grad school, is that financial support going to be there?

  • Is there a certain dollar amount that they can contribute? Having a budget for these large costs is key to avoiding or minimizing debt. And for parents nearing retirement, it’s also a way to make sure college costs don’t cut into those much-needed funds.

  • Is there a certain borrowing capacity that they think they can handle? You’ll need to know if student loans are an option for your family, and if they are, how much you can reasonably afford.

Article Sources
  1. Jennifer Ma and Matea Pender, “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021,” College Board, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf.
  2. “Trends in College Pricing 2021” Excel Sheet, College Board, https://research.collegeboard.org/xlsx/trends-college-pricing-excel-data-2021-0.xlsx.
  3. “Understanding College Costs,” Office of Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/resources/prepare-for-college/students/choosing-schools/consider-costs.
  4. “Four Years Free.” Portland State University. https://www.pdx.edu/student-finance/four-years-free
  5. “What are the different ways to pay for college or graduate school?” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Aug. 4, 2017, https://www.consumerfinance.gov/ask-cfpb/what-are-the-different-ways-to-pay-for-college-or-graduate-school-en-545.

About the Authors

Devon Delfino

Devon Delfino

Devon Delfino is a writer who’s covered personal finance—including everything from student loans to budgeting to saving for retirement and beyond—for the past six years. Her financial reporting has appeared in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Teen Vogue, Masha

Full bio
Mark Kantrowitz

Mark Kantrowitz

Mark Kantrowitz is a nationally-recognized expert on student financial aid, the FAFSA, scholarships, 529 plans and student loans. His mission is to deliver practical information, advice and tools to students and their families so they can make smarter, more informed decisions.

Full bio

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