When it comes down to it, the big question on every college-bound family’s mind is: how much is college going to cost? The answer to that question varies from hundreds of thousands of dollars to nothing at all. Somewhere in the middle lies the real answer for the majority of college students.
Take a look at some data to get a sense of how your teen’s college choices might affect the average annual cost of college. From size and location to institution type and your child’s academic performance, there are many factors that go into determining college cost.
Big city vs. small town
According to WalletHub’s “2015 Best and Worst College Cities and Towns in America” report, there are some cities in the nation that are notorious for having a lower average cost for a higher education. The top two happen to be found in Utah (Provo and Orem), and the next three on the list in Florida (Gainesville, Tallahassee and Orlando). The most expensive college educations can be found in Dallas, TX, Evanston, IL and Durham, NC. But the truth is you’ll find a mix of college costs wherever you go.
Choosing a rural area might seem like it could save you money since cost of living is usually lower than in a big city, but keep in mind that “college towns” tend to rely on income generated by the student population, so rents or local convenience stores might be pricey.
Region-wise, colleges in the Mid-Atlantic states, New England, and the West generally have higher tuition than those in the Midwest, South and Southwest, according to data compiled by The College Board. Of course, despite such data, remember there are always exceptions. You could very well find an affordable school in a very expensive city or pricey tuition in a rural town with a low cost of living.
In-state vs. Out-of-state
Location really makes the most difference in the price tag of an education if you decide to go to school close to home. Consider this: according to The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing, tuition and fees for in‐state students at public four‐year institutions was $9,410 in 2015-16. With room and board charges, the cost hits $19,548. Compare that to the out-of-state public college tuition of $23,893 ($34,031 with room and board), and you can see a clear advantage to sticking with your own state’s university system.
Then again, if you plan to go the private colleges route, there isn’t usually a different price for in-state versus out-of-state students. However, once you start factoring in secondary costs (like what it will cost to visit home), choosing a school across the country versus one that is nearby or in a neighboring state could add a couple of thousand dollars per year in airfare alone onto your expenses.
Speaking of public versus private, on average, a four-year education at a private institution costs almost $9,000 more than an out-of-state public one — $32,405 versus $23,893 according to College Board. However, that’s going by sticker prices. Very rarely do most college students — regardless of school — pay the entire tuition price out of pocket. In fact, many private institutions offer generous merit scholarships and aid packages to those who qualify. Although going with a public, in-state institution will usually mean a less expensive education, it’s not necessarily the case for every student. Someone who is fortunate enough to get a full scholarship may ultimately pay less for college.
Financial aid and scholarship opportunities
Families don’t really get a true picture of what their annual cost of college will be until they receive financial aid packages — and just about two-thirds of students get some type of aid, according to The College Board. After you have been accepted, schools will send out award letters that break down how much your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be after financial aid is applied. This represents the out-of-pocket expense that you’re expected to pay or borrow to cover what’s left over after scholarships, grants, work-study and federal student loan amounts. All of these types of aid can be awarded to you by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Since many schools award financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis, you may receive more financial aid by completing your FAFSA on time or early and ensuring that all of the information is accurate.
However, the FAFSA is not the only way to receive money for college. To meet your EFC, you can also look into private student loans and apply for additional scholarships or grants. Visit this Scholarship Search tool to get started finding need or merit-based scholarships.
As you can see, when it comes to figuring out your average annual cost of college, there are many variables. Starting off with a lower priced, public institution that’s close to home and commuting instead of dorming can help, especially if family financial need is high. However, take the time to compare costs for other schools on your wish list as well. You might just be surprised at what the bottom line costs turn out to be.