What Tuition Does (and Doesn’t) Cover for College

Tuition payments might require you to save up or borrow, but secondary expenses like room and board also come at considerable cost.

Written by Dori Zinn / October 4, 2022

Quick Bites

  • Your tuition cost could vary widely depending on whether you attend an in-state or out-of-state school, public college or private university, among other factors.
  • Cost of attendance is a more useful figure than tuition because it accounts for other fees.
  • Tuition has far outpaced inflation since the 1960s, forcing families to rely on financial aid.

Every college charges a different price for attending that school. Some have more fees than others, but one thing that’s standard across the board is tuition.

Tuition is what you pay to attend classes and courses at a school. Some schools charge a flat rate for tuition while others charge based on per credit hour.[1]

It’s important to know that the cost of college includes tuition, but tuition doesn’t encompass the entire cost of college.

“Tuition includes your attendance at classes as well as the professor's office hours so that you may seek extra help and guidance as it pertains to… academic courses,” says Vicki Vollweiler, the founder of College Financial Prep. “Tuition does not include other expenditures at college, such as room and board, lab fees, parking fees and other miscellaneous fees and costs.”

Inside this article

  1. How does tuition work?
  2. Tuition examples
  3. History of rising tuition
  4. Tuition vs. cost of attendance

How does tuition work?

Tuition payments are part of your overall cost of attendance, but cost of attendance varies by factors like…

  • How many courses you’re taking

  • If you live on campus

  • If you’re an out-of-state or international student

Tuition payments are made when you pay your cost of attendance to the school. And each school is different in how they handle tuition charges.

“Unfortunately, there is not usually anything standardized from one college to the next,” says Vollweiler. “However, all colleges are independent of one another and each sets its own pricing.”

Vollweiler says in most cases, attending a public, in-state school is less expensive than going out of state or to a private institution. But the cost you’re charged and what you pay might be wildly different based on how much you earn in scholarships and grants or other financial aid.

How to Pay for College

How to Pay for College

Fortunately, there are many resources available to help pay for college, including gift aid, student employment and student loans.

Find out more

Tuition examples

What you pay at one school can be wildly different compared to another. Here’s a breakdown of different schools in North Carolina based on tuition, general fees and total costs for residents and non-residents[2]. Remember these are estimates and can change based on a variety of factors.

SchoolTuitionAthletic feeStudent activity feeTotal for residentsTotal for nonresidents
NC State University$6,535 (Resident) $28,276 (Non-resident)$232 $707.97 $8,918.25 $30,659.25
UNC Chapel Hill$7,019 (Resident) $35,580 (Non-resident) $279 $394.16 $8,751.46 $37,312.46
East Carolina University$4,452 (Resident) $20,729 (Non-resident) $773 $702 $7,154 $23,431
Winston-Salem University$3,401 (Resident) $14,057 (Non-resident) $780 $545.70 $5,966.16 $16,622.60
Western Carolina University$1,000 (Resident) $5,000 (Non-resident) $868 $632 $3,977 $7,977

“While many private colleges and universities seem more expensive than public universities, depending on the generosity of the college in terms of need-based aid and merit scholarships, the final cost may be lower than originally anticipated,” says Vollweiler.

For example, Duke University charges more than $60,000 in tuition and fees. But Duke students pay on a sliding scale based on their family’s income. One in five freshmen attend Duke tuition-free.[3] While the sticker price is much higher to attend a private university like Duke, many students receive need-based scholarships and might end up paying much less than their public university counterparts.

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

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.

Find out more

History of rising tuition

Tuition makes up the majority of the costs associated with college, but it’s not the only cost. Most students’ tuition runs them about 53% of their total cost of attendance.[4] That means lodging, transportation, supplies and fees make up the rest of the total cost.

Tuition at most schools has gone up more than students can afford. Adjusting for inflation, tuition has risen more than 355% from 1963 to 2020.[4] But in the last 20 years, tuition costs have surpassed inflation by more than 86%.[4]

Photo of a college graduate

Here’s How the Cost of College Has Changed Since the 1960s

Here’s How the Cost of College Has Changed Since the 1960s

Sound Dollar examined data from the National Center for Education Statistics to see how college costs have changed between 1963 and 2020.

Find out more

In 1970, most students were paying the same amount to go to school regardless of which kind of school they went to and what type of student they were. Today, a private, two-year degree is one-fourth the cost to attend a private, 4-year institution.

Tuition vs. cost of attendance: What’s the difference?

It’s easy to get confused on the difference between tuition and cost of attendance. After all, tuition makes up the majority of your cost of attendance.

“Tuition is the sum of money a college or university charges for teaching or instruction,” says Vollweiler. “The cost of attendance (COA) is when you add up all of the associated college costs such as tuition, room and board, fees, books and other personal expenses and then subtract the number of grants, scholarships, work-study and student loans that are offered to the student.”

COA = Tuition and other expenses — Financial aid

Even with an estimate, everyone’s cost of attendance is different. What one person pays as an in-state, on-campus resident is a lot different than a returning student who lives off-campus, a graduate student or an international student. Remember that estimates are just educated guesses until your financial aid is processed.


When reviewing potential schools, remember that tuition and cost of attendance are different. You might find that you get more financial aid if you attend one school compared to another and there’s a chance you could pay less out-of-pocket for a private school compared to a public university. It’s important to compare the total cost to attend each school you’re looking at, not just the tuition.

Article Sources
  1. “What’s the True Cost of Attendance? Know Before You Go,” College Board, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/college-costs/true-cost-of-attendance.
  2. “Tuition and Fees Applicable to All Regular Full-Time Undergraduate Students 2022-2023,” The University of North Carolina, Feb. 24, 2022. https://www.northcarolina.edu/wp-content/uploads/reports-and-documents/finance-documents/2022-23-tuition-and-fees-ug.pdf.
  3. “Cost of Attendance,” Duke University, https://financialaid.duke.edu/how-aid-calculated/cost-attendance/.
  4. “Average Cost of College & Tuition,” Education Data Initiative, Aug. 15, 2022, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college.

About the Author

Dori Zinn

Dori Zinn

Dori has covered personal finance for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, CNET, TIME, Yahoo, and others.

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