Understanding College Costs

Resources to help you pay for college.

A common myth about college is that it’s too expensive. But once students understand what college really costs, they often discover that higher education is within their reach.

College Costs Vary

The biggest part of college costs is usually tuition. Tuition is the price you pay for classes. Along with tuition, you’ll probably have to pay some other fees to enroll in and attend a college. Tuition and fees vary from college to college.

Other college costs include room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. Just like tuition, these costs vary from college to college. And students can find ways to save money on most of these expenses.

You can see that the cost of college depends a lot on the choices you make. There’s something else you should know: The published price of attending a college is not usually what students actually pay. They often pay less, thanks to financial aid.

Financial Aid Reduces Your Cost

Financial aid is money given or lent to you to help you pay for college. It may be awarded to you based on your financial need alone, or based partly on factors such as proven academic or athletic ability. Most full-time college students receive some form of financial aid.

The actual, final price (or “net price”) you’ll pay for a specific college is the difference between the published price (tuition and fees) to attend that college, minus any grants, scholarships, and education tax benefits for which you may be eligible.

The difference between the published price and the net price can be considerable. For example, in 2015-16, the average published price of in-state tuition and fees for public four-year colleges was about $9,410. But the average net price of in-state tuition and fees for public four-year colleges was only about $3,980.

So don’t let the prices published on college websites discourage you. The number you actually need to know is the estimated net price for you. How can you figure that out? Almost all colleges offer a net price calculator on their website. You can also use the College Board’s Net Price Calculator to estimate your net price at hundreds of colleges.

To find out more about the actual cost of college, read College Costs: FAQs.


How many college students get financial aid?

Millions of students receive financial aid each year. In 2021-22, undergraduate and graduate students received a total of $234.6 billion in student aid in the form of grants, Federal Work-Study, federal loans, and federal tax credits and deductions.

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Can I afford to go to college?

Despite the news stories about rising college prices, a college education is more affordable than most people believe. Many colleges provide an excellent educational experience at a price you can manage. Public college prices are much lower than you might expect, and many private nonprofit colleges provide generous grants and scholarships to offset published costs.

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Does applying for financial aid hurt my chances of being admitted?

You’re usually admitted based on your academic performance and the qualities you bring to the campus community. Colleges want to admit a diverse group of students and often use financial aid to achieve that goal. It’s crucial that you apply for financial aid early in the application process before all of a college’s funds are allocated.

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Do I qualify for aid even if I don’t get straight A’s?

It's true that some scholarships are awarded based on academic performance. However, most financial aid is based on your family’s financial information provided on an aid application, typically the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

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Are private colleges out of my reach?

Although the cost of college may be a crucial factor for you, focus instead on finding a college that’s a good fitone that meets your academic, career, and personal needs.

You don’t have to rule out “expensive” schools. Keep in mind that private colleges usually offer generous financial aid to attract students from every income level. Plus, financial aid can come from different sources such as scholarships, grants, and loans. So think about net price (not published price), and don’t be afraid to apply to colleges you think you can’t afford.

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Is my family’s income too high to qualify for aid?

Financial aid is intended to make a college education available to students from different financial backgrounds. Family income, the number of family members in college, medical expenses, and other factors may be considered when determining your financial aid eligibility. Even if you think your family income is too high for you to qualify for aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form determines your eligibility for federal and state student grants, work-study, and federal loans.

The best way to get an estimate of how much financial aid a college will offer you and therefore how much you’ll really pay to go to that college is to use the college’s net price calculator. Colleges provide these tools on their websites. Net price calculators give you an estimate of your net price for a particular college (i.e., the cost of attendance minus the gift aid you might get). Learn more about net price.

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Should I consider working while I’m attending college?

Each student should consider their financial situation and the weight of their studies. Students who choose to work a moderate amount often do better academically. You may find that working a campus job related to your career goal is a good way to manage college costs, get experience, and engage with the university community.

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Can I try to get my aid award revised?

Some colleges are willing to review your financial aid package if your financial situation changes. Consider discussing these changes with the financial aid office if your family has experienced an unexpected decrease in income or increase in expenses since you applied for financial aid.

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