What is the Average Cost of a College Degree?

Unlike other costs in life, the average cost of a college degree is not as simple as calculating the mean price tag across all universities in the United States. While this method does produce an average cost, different factors influence what you’ll pay to earn a degree over the course of your college career. For instance, tuition might cost $20,000 per semester at your private university, but with grant money and scholarships, your actual cost could be substantially lower. When calculating the cost of higher education, keep the following in mind.

Average Cost of Attendance

College tuition can be expensive in many cases, even for students who attend public universities in their home states. There’s no single average that can be applied universally to tuition rates, but breaking down costs into categories can be helpful in determining how much you might pay. The College Board outlines four categories for estimating the cost of college tuition:

  • Public, two-year institutions for in-state students charge $3,347
  • Public, four-year institutions for in-state students charge $9,139
  • Public, four-year institutions for non-residents charge $22,958
  • Private, four-year colleges charge $31,231

These prices reflect published rates, which are the tuition rates listed by the school. You may not pay the school’s actual rates. Many colleges offer substantial assistance in the form of loans, work-study programs, scholarships and grants. The figures above represent an average, but according to The College Board, “half of all full-time undergraduate students at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges” end up attending a school that charges no more than $11,550 per semester for tuition and fees.

Rising Costs of College

College tuition rates are often the subject of debate among politicians and concerned citizens, who claim that rising costs can be prohibitive for certain sectors of the population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of a college degree is substantially higher today than it was 30 years ago, even adjusting for inflation. In 1982, a full-time undergraduate student paid about $3,877 for tuition, fees, room and board. In 2012, the price tag jumped to $20,234. Public schools have seen the most significant increases. Between 2002 and 2012, students paid 39 percent more for tuition, fees, room and board. Private colleges actually saw a decrease in overall costs of about 7 percent from 2002 to 2012. However, tuition rates across the country continue to climb for the most part.

Long-term Financial Investment

If the cost of attending school seems high, then consider the fact that people with a college degree typically earn much more than those with a high school diploma. The College Board points out that full-time workers with a college degree earned about $21,100 more than those without one in 2011. Getting a degree can help you to hone your skills, make valuable connections with future colleagues and earn a better paycheck over the course of your career.

Going to school can seem like an expensive investment, but the long-term benefits are greater, especially for specific industries. Online programs may save you some money while allowing you to earn the same degree you might find at a brick-and-mortar institution (please see: Cheapest Online Colleges for Bachelor’s Degree’s). When researching what the average cost of a college degree is, consider the type of school you’re applying to and whether the retail cost is the same as what you’ll end up paying after financial assistance.