How Much Does It Cost on Average for Four Years of College?

The cost of college in the United States is rising.
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There's no doubt about: the cost of higher education can be a daunting number, especially when it comes to four-year institutions. In addition to tuition and fees, college students need to plan for expenses such as room and board, books, transportation to and from school, and other possible incidental costs such as child care.

Current Costs

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a year of college in a public four-year institution cost an average of $15,918 during the 2010-11 school year. This included not only tuition but also fees and room and board. That means that four years cost approximately $63,672. The average cost of attending a private four-year university is even higher: $32,617 per year, or about $130,468 over the course of four years.


The cost of college is also increasing, and has been for decades. Without accounting for inflation, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average cost of one year at a public four-year institution was $5,243 in 1990-91, $8,653 in 2000-01, and $15,918 in 2010-11. Costs are expected to continue to rise. College costs typically rise between 5 and 8 percent each year. Taking the average costs of tuition found by the National Center for Education Statistics and assuming a cost increase rate of 7 percent, four years at a public institution will cost an average of about $139,028 in 10 years and $273,490 in 20. Four years at a private institution will cost an average of $284,878 in 10 years and $560,398 in 20.

Loan Debt

With the cost of education so high, it's no wonder that many students are leaving college with at least some student loan debt. According to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, graduating students had an average outstanding loan balance of $23,300 in 2011. Most, or 72.3 percent, owed $25,000 or less, but 11 percent owed large sums of $50,000 or more, and 3 percent owed $100,000 or more. With college costs on the rise, the level of student debt is also likely to increase.

What You Can Do

You can start mitigating these potential costs now. There are many ways to save for college. State-sponsored college savings plans, often called 529 plans, offer a way to put money away for college without incurring taxes on their savings. Some credit cards, such as Upromise, put a percentage of money spent into a college fund. And it's not as though you necessarily need to save for the total cost of college. According to CNN Money, four-year public college students received an average of $6,100 in financial aid per year in 2010-11, while those attending private schools averaged $16,000 in financial aid. When it comes time to apply for colleges, apply for plenty of scholarships as well.

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