Managing Money

What is the Average Cost of College Tuition?

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Written by SoFi

College tuition varies based on factors like where the school is located, and whether the school is public or private. The average cost of college for in-state students at a four year institution in 2020-2021 was $10,560. Students at private nonprofit four year institutions paid on average $37,650.

Read on for more information about the average tuition costs, and other expenses facing college students.

The Average Cost of College

The cost of tuition has been steadily increasing for decades. When it comes to four year colleges and universities, the statistics typically break down between two types—public and private.

According to the College Board’s annual “Trends in College Pricing  ” report, the average cost of attending a four year college as an in-state student at a public university during the 2020-2021 school year was $10,560, as mentioned. As an out-of-state student attending a public four year college, the average rose to $27,020.

The average cost of attending a private four year institution was $37,650. These averages are based on the published price at a college or university. This includes tuition and room and board.

The cost of tuition can be a major factor in determining which school students commit to. According to the 2021 Sallie Mae survey “How America Pays for College 2021,” 60% of parents and students eliminated a college based on cost after receiving their financial aid package.

Historical Average Cost of Tuition

The cost of tuition has increased dramatically over time. For the 1985-86 school year, the average cost of college tuition at a public four year institution was $8,981 for a student receiving in-state tuition. In just 20 years, tuition rose to $15,411 for the 2005-06 school year.

U.S. News reviewed tuition costs  at 389 ranked National Universities, those universities included as part of the annual college rankings. According to their data, the average tuition and fees at private National Universities increased by 144% in just 20 years from 2001 to 2021. During that time period, at four year public National Universities tuition for out-of-state students increased by 165%, and for in-state students it rose by 212%.

Average Total Cost of College

A traditional undergraduate college degree takes four years to complete, which means four years of tuition costs. According to, the cost of college has risen, on average, about 6.8% annually since 2001.

This isn’t always the case, so it can be challenging to predict exactly how much a student will pay in tuition costs over the course of their degree. For example, The College Board’s annual Trends in College Pricing  found that in-state tuition costs at public four-year institutions increased just over 1% from the 2019-2020 to the 2020-2021 school year. For that same time period, tuition increased just over 2% at private nonprofit four-year institutions.

To get a rough estimate of how much college will cost in its entirety, you can take the current tuition rate and multiply it by four. Keep in mind this won’t account for any increase in the cost of tuition.

Average Additional College Expenses

Tuition generally makes up the majority of a student’s college expenses. But there are other fees and costs to factor in including the cost of room and board, books and other supplies. Beyond school specific costs, students might also need to factor in general living expenses.

What Is the Cost of Room and Board?

Some colleges charge “comprehensive fees” which reflect the total for tuition, fees, and room and board.

Other colleges and universities charge room and board separately from tuition and fees. The cost of room and board typically accounts for the cost of housing (i.e., a dorm room or on-campus apartment) and the cost of the meal plan.

The average cost of room and board for the 2020-2021 school year was $11,620 for four-year public institutions (for both in-state and out-of-state students, and $13,120 for four-year nonprofit institutions.

The cost will vary depending on the type of housing accommodations you live in and the type of meal plan you choose. Housing can be another determining factor for students. According to the same 2021 Sallie Mae survey. PDF File, 83% of college students selected a college in their home state and 41% live at home or with relatives to save on housing costs.

The Cost of Extra Classes

Tuition at some schools may cover the cost of a certain number of credit hours. Depending on how many credit hours you take and the types of classes you enroll in, the number may change. If you exceed the number of credit hours covered by tuition, you may pay an additional fee.

Books and Supplies

On top of those expenses, don’t forget to budget for books and supplies. The average college student attending a four-year college spends over $1,240 on textbooks and supplies over the course of the year.


Transportation is another major category of expenses for college students. Will you have a car on campus? If so, plan to pay for gas, insurance, and a parking permit. How often do you plan to go home? Will a trip to visit your family require airfare?

Other Living Expenses

Then there are any additional personal expenses like eating out, laundry, or the cost of a cell phone bill. To get an idea of how much you’ll actually spend every month, you could review your current spending.

College may be the first time you’ve had to learn how to budget. Consider sitting down with your parents, an older sibling, or trusted friend who has already navigated their first year of college to get an idea of the types of expenses you may encounter.

Paying for College

There are, of course, options available to help you finance your education. If you’re planning on going to college for the first time, or returning for further education, consider looking into the following options:

First Thing’s First: The FAFSA®

A common first step for students interested in securing federal financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Aid  (FAFSA®). In order to qualify for federal aid, students must meet some basic eligibility
, such as demonstrating financial need.

As you get ready to apply, pay attention to deadlines, as they can vary by school and state. After you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll receive an award letter detailing the type of aid you qualify for. This may include scholarships and grants, work-study, and/or federal student loans.

Recommended: How College Financial Aid Works

Planning ahead is one way to set yourself up to successfully pay for college. If you’re not quite ready to fill out the FAFSA yet, you can use the FAFSA4caster  ​to get an idea of how much aid you might qualify for.

Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships and grants can be immensely helpful when it comes to paying for college since it’s money that doesn’t need to be repaid. In addition to filing the FAFSA, you could check to see if there are any other scholarship opportunities for which you may qualify. There are also online resources and databases that compile different scholarship opportunities.

The federal work-study program is another form of aid that can help students pay for college. If you are eligible for work-study and receive it in your financial aid award, you may still have to find your own employment at your university. Check with your school’s financial aid office to find out if your school participates and whether they will place you or if they have a work-study job board.

Recommended: Search for Scholarships and Grants by State

Student Loans

Student loans offer another avenue for students to finance their college education. Unlike scholarships and grants, however, student loans must be repaid. There are two umbrellas when it comes to student loans—federal and private.

Federal Student Loans

Federal loans are also included as a part of a student’s financial aid package and as mentioned, applying for student loans requires filling out the FAFSA. Federal loans for undergraduates can be either subsidized or unsubsidized. With a subsidized loan, borrowers won’t be responsible for paying the interest that accrues on the loan while they are actively enrolled in school at least half-time. With an unsubsidized loan, borrowers are responsible for paying the accrued interest during all periods.

Whether subsidized or unsubsidized, loan repayment generally doesn’t begin until after graduation (or a student drops below half-time) and the grace period has lapsed.

Most grace periods for federal loans are six months. Interest rates on federal student loans are set by the government (and have been since July 1, 2006) and are fixed for the life of the loan.

Recommended: A Guide to Student Loan Interest Rates for the 2021-2022 School Year

Federal loans aren’t guaranteed to cover your undergraduate or graduate school tuition costs. There are borrowing limits that restrict the amount of federal loans a student can take out each year—for example, a first year undergrad, dependent student is currently allowed to borrow $5,500 in federal loans. In some cases, private student loans may be used to fill in the gaps.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans are offered by lenders, credit unions, or other financial institutions. Terms and conditions of a private student loan are set by the individual lender.

Private lenders will likely review a borrower’s credit history and other financial factors in order to determine what type of loan they may qualify for. If an applicant is applying with a cosigner, private student loan lenders will look at their financial background as well, which might include things like their credit score and current income.

While federal student loans come with fixed interest rates, private student loans can have fixed or variable interest rates. Variable interest rates may start lower than fixed rates, but they rise and fall in accordance to current market rates.

Private student loans don’t always carry the same benefits and protections offered to federal student loans—such as income-driven repayment or deferment options. Some lenders may offer their own benefits. SoFi, for example, has Unemployment Protection, which helps eligible borrowers pause their loan payments if they lose their job through no fault of their own.

The Takeaway

As discussed above, the average cost of college tuition for the 2020-2021 school year was $10,560 for those paying in-state tuition at a four-year public institution. For out-of-state students, the average was $27,020. At a private four year institution it was $37,650.

Paying for college may require a compilation of financing options, including using savings, scholarships, grants, work-study, federal student loans or even private student loans.

Of course, private student loans aren’t going to be the right choice for every student. If they seem like the right idea for you, SoFi’s private student loans might be worth considering.

SoFi private student loans have no fees—that means no late fees or origination fees—and the application process is entirely online, even if you need to add a cosigner.

This article originally appeared on SoFi.

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