What you pay for college is actually determined by how you pay for it. The widespread use of student loans has made attendance easier while ignoring the underlying problems that student debt can create. Much like an iceberg, the majority of the debt issue is hidden beneath the surface.

Photo by Carolyn Forsyth

August, 2017


When an acceptance letter is received from a college there is a cost to attendance. Even for those with “Full-Ride” scholarships, there are costs. The key cost components of attendance at a college or university are tuition, books, student fees, room and board, travel, entertainment and an occasional pizza when studying into the late hours.

For most students, this is the first time that they will be faced with having to understand that there are costs associated with attendance and those costs are influenced by their choices, not someone else’s choice.

There are both private schools and public schools.  If you live in California the cost of tuition at a California State College is significantly different than if you live in Ohio and want to attend a California public college. Today, out-of-state students are paying a tuition cost closer to the private college costs.

These are average college costs for a full time student:

These costs can be affected by where the school is situated.  Attend a college in New York City and the costs go up easily by 35% because it is an expensive city.  In Bozeman, Montana costs decline by 25% because it’s cheaper to live in Bozeman.  This is not comparing the quality of the education between these locations.  No one should expect to get a very good professor of Agricultural Sciences at NYU and no one should expect to get an exceptional professor of International Political Systems at the University of Montana.  Where a person attends college will and should reflect the purpose of attending that particular school.

To compare school costs, look at the “net cost.”  Schools provide financial assistance through grants, scholarships and financial aid programs.  The actual cost of attending a college is not the “sticker price” of tuition. When determining the actual cost of an education, remember to use the net cost.  The College Board and the Department of Education have collected data on most schools and if the college or university isn’t providing the information on their website, go to the CollegeBoard.org or ed.gov and get the net cost of attendance for the schools that are being considered.


Average tuition and other costs on a net basis adjust to:

The other costs of attendance generally remain the same. So living on campus has a cost and student fees have been rising in the last few years as state support for schools has been reduced. For reference, the student fees at the University of Santa Cruz, California are $1,618 (excluding Health Insurance which could add $2,877). 

Net cost allows one to compare schools on an apples-to-apples approach.  Using the net cost will probably make it easier to apply to schools that may appear out of reach.

When an acceptance letter is received, the school will provide you with a breakdown of financial support they are offering.

It should also be noted that some schools do not require you to pay tuition if you are accepted. There may be income tests, residency and work requirements or service requirements after graduation. The United States Military Academy at West Point has long been recognized as providing a superior education that is free. However, you are in the Army from day one (you receive a salary) and after graduation you will do 5 years of active duty in the U.S. Army.



United States Department of Education www.ed.gov;

The College Board Organization www.collegeboard.org