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by Center for Personal Finance editors



College costs still are on the rise—students and their families can expect to pay $172 to $1096 more on average for tuition and fees this year, according to the College Board in New York, a not-for-profit membership association of colleges and universities. But thanks to a host of grant aid and tax credits, most students pay less than the published price of tuition.

And despite the tens of thousands of dollars parents fork out and the increasing debt students are piling up, a college degree still pays off in a lifetime of increased earnings.

The following are answers to many frequently asked questions about college costs. All statistics and numbers are from the College Board unless otherwise noted.

What is the average cost of tuition for a four-year college?

For the 2009-10 school year, total tuition and fees averaged $7,020 at four-year public universities for in-state students, and $26,273 at four-year private colleges.

How fast are tuition and fees increasing?

Tuition and fees increased 6.5% for four-year public universities in 2009-10 from the 2008-09 school year, and 4.4% for four-year private colleges.

What are the average total published costs of four-year universities and colleges?

Tuition, fees, and room and board averaged $15,213 at four-year public schools and $35,636 at four-year private schools for the 2009-10 year.

How much of the published costs do students actually pay?

The College Board emphasizes that these published tuition prices are not what most students actually pay. Grant aid and education tax credits and deductions reduce the cost of college for many students and families.

Nearly two-thirds of full-time undergraduate students at four-year institutions receive grants from federal and state governments, institutional funds, or other private sources. Grants actually reduce the cost of college; you don’t have to repay them. Many students receive tax credits and/or deductions, subsidized loans, and can participate in work-assistance programs.

The average net price—the published price less student aid—students paid for annual tuition and fees at public four-year universities in 2009-10 was $1,600, reduced from the published price of $7,020. Private four-year college net price was $11,900, reduced from the published price of $26,273. Net prices vary, depending on need. Low-income families generally have much lower net prices than high-income families.

What does a total yearly student budget look like?

The cost of college extends beyond tuition and room and board costs—you must factor in several other costs as well. The table below details average expenses for a full-time resident student at a four-year public and a four-year private institution.

 4-year public4-year private
Tuition & Fees$7,020$26,273
Room & Board$8,193$9,363
Books & Supplies$1,122$1,116
Other Expenses$1,974$1,427

How much should I expect to pay over four years for a four-year degree?

If you assume an average annual increase of 7% for college costs—which includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation—total projected costs for a four-year college education for an in-state student are:


4-year public university4-year private college
Year 1 2009-2010$19,388$39,028
Year 2$20,745$41,760
Year 3$22,197$44,683
Year 4$23,751$47,811
Total projected cost of a four year college education$86,081$173,282

Do college graduates recoup education costs in earnings?

College is expensive, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. College graduates earn more than those who only graduate from high school, and the income gap has increased significantly over time.

In 2009, median earnings for full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree ages 25 and older were $14,100 more than the median earnings of full-time workers with only a high-school diploma. Those with higher degrees (master’s, doctorate and so on) earn anywhere from $7,600 to $35,500 more than those with a bachelor’s degree.

According to U.S. Census Bureau, the average worker age 25 or older with a four-year college degree earned $60,954 in 2008; compare that with the $33,618 that a worker with only a high-school diploma earned.

How much more do college graduates earn over a lifetime than high-school graduates?

Over their working lives, as calculated by the College Board, this income gap means that typical college graduates can expect to earn about 73% more than typical high-school graduates. Likewise, those with advanced degrees can expect to earn two to three times as much.

Furthermore, the average college graduate recoups the cost of college in a relatively short period of time. By the age of 33, the typical college graduate who enrolled at age 18 earned enough to compensate for tuition and fees at the average public four-year college, as well as earnings foregone while attending college.

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Published July 31, 2007

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