How Much Does College Cost in the US?

ByAngelique Cruz
Edited byAliha Strange

Updated: December 26, 2023

ByAngelique Cruz
Edited byAliha Strange

Updated: December 26, 2023

Advertising & Editorial Disclosure

The average cost of college has increased year over year in the last two decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average American spent $25,910 annually in 2021 for undergraduate tuition and other costs like room and board. However, it's essential to note that the amount you spend varies depending on the type of institution you attend. The average cost of college for public institutions for the 2020-2021 school year was $19,374 annually. Meanwhile, you'll spend significantly more to attend a private institution — an average of $45,920 annually for the same period. Understanding the overall cost of college can help you financially prepare for your education.

KEY FINDINGS ON AVERAGE COST OF COLLEGE

The average cost of college has changed over the years. Here are some key findings about undergraduate tuition fees, dormitory costs, boarding costs and how figures may vary depending on your location.

  • In 2021, the average cost of college for full-time undergraduate students was $25,910 per year. This amount includes various expenses such as tuition, fees and room and board for two-year and four-year programs.
  • Total college costs increased by almost 60% from 2000 to 2021, rising an average of 2.8% each year.
  • A four-year undergraduate degree costs an average of $29,033 annually.
  • Public institutions had an annual average cost of $19,374 in 2021, while private institutions were $45,920.
  • In 2021, tuition and fees averaged $7,638 per year. It was almost four times that amount for those attending a private university.
  • Regardless of the institution (public or private), a dorm amounted to almost $7,000 per year in 2021, while boarding was a little over $5,000.
  • Vermont and New Hampshire had the most expensive in-state tuition fees for the 2020-2021 school year at $30,752 and $29,222 per year, respectively. In contrast, Wyoming and Utah were the most affordable states, with a per-year average cost of $14,584 and $14,653, respectively.
  • Vermont and Michigan were the least affordable places for out-of-state tuition, costing $41,963 and $39,427 per year. South Dakota and the District of Columbia had the lowest per-year rates at $12,924 and $13,004, respectively.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (Table 330.10), National Center for Education Statistics (Table 330.20)

The Average Cost of College

It's never too early to think about how to pay for college. After all, the average cost of college has risen since the 2000s. It can strain the finances of an individual or family without ample preparation.

An excellent starting point is seeing how much college costs have changed since 2000. It includes all items that require spending, such as tuition fees and room and board. The figures below include the yearly average cost of both two-year and four-year programs.

Looking at how college costs have changed over the last 20 years, the upward trend is undeniable. The Class of 2004 spent an average of $17,186, but it increased to $25,784 for the Class of 2022 — a 50% increase. Interestingly, although average college costs continued to grow, it happened at a slower and slower pace through the years:

  • Between the Classes of 2004 and 2010: 19.95%
  • Between the Classes of 2010 and 2016: 17.09%
  • Between the Classes of 2016 and 2022: 6.82%

CollegeBoard’s 2021 report acknowledges that the tuition fees and room and board make up most college costs. Nonetheless, books, supplies and transportation also contribute to the overall figure.

We can attribute the rising cost of college to several factors. One is the demand for education. Even for parents who did not receive a college education, most want better than what they had for their children. Another is upgraded school facilities, allowing students a better experience. Having state-of-the-art student centers and campus food that rivals restaurants in quality contributed to higher costs. Along with additional services and amenities come administrations. Their increased numbers and salaries add to college costs.

Average Cost of College per year

Source: National Center for Education Statistics
*Class of '22. Data for 2021-2022 is not yet available.

Average Cost of Public and Private Colleges

Considering the average cost of college in 2021, it's unsurprising how many people plan to use student loans to afford their education. The amount borrowed varies by individual, depending on the type of institution.

As we mentioned, several factors affect college costs. One is whether the institution is public or private — it changes things significantly. Our graph below shows how their overall costs differ and how these have changed over the years.

Public colleges are considerably more affordable than private ones. Still, their costs have increased by almost 70% in 21 years — from an average of $11,402 in 2000 to $19,374 in 2021.

In comparison, the increase in the overall cost of private colleges during the same period was lower — only 43%. However, it's crucial to note that in 2000, the overall cost was already sky-high at $32,122 per year compared to a private university. In 2021, the average American spent almost $46,000 annually for a college education from a private institution.

Public and private universities differ in cost in part due to their funding. For example, public institutions receive funding from the state government, which typically translates to lower tuition fees, especially if you decide to study in-state. Keep in mind that attending college in a different state can mean higher tuition fees, even for a public institution.

Private institutions rely solely on tuition fees and other endowments. Consequently, they charge higher tuition and fees to keep the institution in business. Private colleges also don't offer in-state tuition, so your residence won’t affect college expenses negatively or positively.

Average Cost of Public and Private Colleges

Average Cost of a 4-Year College Degree

Since 42.8% of new high school graduates enter four-year programs, almost half consider four-year programs their default plan for education. In comparison, only 19.9% of new high school graduates enter two-year programs. Whether you go to a public or a private college, the length of the program you attend also plays into what you’re paying.

If you're a parent preparing for your child's future, consider the cost of four-year degrees. If you're a soon-to-be-college student, it may help to determine what kind of student loan to get. MoneyGeek presents data on how much four-year programs cost and how figures have changed in the last two decades.

The overall trend of the average cost of college for a four-year degree has been increasing. This is regardless of the type of institution, public or private. From an average of $19,422 in 2000, college costs have increased by 49.5%, reaching $29,033 in 2021. That's an average increase of 2.36% per year.

The graph shows that the increase in average cost varied between 5-year intervals:

  • 2000 to 2005: 18.82%
  • 2005 to 2010: 13.85%
  • 2010 to 2015: 9.85%
  • 2015 to 2020: 2.00%

That means that although costs continued to increase, they didn't go up as rapidly as they did in earlier years. From 2020 to 2021, the average cost of college for a four-year degree decreased by $403 or 1.37%.

Average cost of 4-year college degree

Average Cost of College Tuition and Fees

Now that we've covered the overall costs of college overall, it's time to look at its contributors.

The first thing that often enters an individual’s mind when planning for college is tuition. It's the most significant college expense and why most people in the U.S. are still paying off their student debt.

The graph below shows the average tuition and fees across all institutions. It includes costs for private and public colleges for two-year and four-year programs.

How much you spend on tuition and fees has come a long way since 2000. From an average of $8,082 annually, it climbed 69% to $13,677 by 2021. That's an average yearly increase of 3.3%, although the change may vary between school years. Looking at 5-year intervals, the most significant jump in average costs was from 2010 to 2015 at 14.9%. The other years have smaller increases, the lowest being 4.4% from 2015 to 2020.

Remember that these figures cover tuition and fees. Although people usually lump them together in one category, they are not the same. The former refers to the amount colleges charge for teaching, which may vary depending on your major. Schools calculate your tuition based on the units comprising your academic year. Fees refer to additional costs colleges charge, depending on the institution. Some examples would be communication, health clinic and gym fees. Colleges typically use these to fund student support services, such as transportation within school grounds, athletic facilities and the student government.

As colleges upgrade their facilities, provide more services to their students and invest more in their programs, tuition and fees tend to increase, raising the overall cost of college.

Average College Tuition and Fees

Average Cost of Room and Board

While tuition and fees remain the most significant contributor to college costs, housing comes in second. Whether you decide to live on campus or rent an apartment nearby, both come with a price. You'll have to factor in room and board expenses, typically lodging and food, unless you live close enough to your campus to go home daily.

Both costs (room and board) dramatically increased across 21 years. Room costs climbed by almost 63%, from $4,240 in the 2000-2001 school year to almost $7,000 in the 2020-2021 school year. Except for 2020 to 2021, which showed an almost unnoticeable decrease, all other years reflect an increase in cost.

That said, it's interesting to note that the difference in increases between 5-year periods shows a decreasing trend:

  • 2000 to 2005: 18.84%
  • 2005 to 2010: 15.22%
  • 2010 to 2015: 12.52%
  • 2015 to 2020: 8.51%

Board costs follow a similar upward pattern, going from $3,939 per year in 2000 to $5,335 in 2021 — approximately a 35% increase. However, the increase has slowed over time when broken up into 5-year intervals.

The cost of room and board is influenced by institution type (public or private) and region. Keep in mind that whether your college is in an urbanized or rural area will also contribute to differing tuition and fees.

Average Cost of College Room and Board

Average Cost of College by State

The last angle we explored is how the average cost of college varies between states. Instead of having one overall amount, we married this perspective with the cost differences between private and public colleges. MoneyGeek's heatmap presents three amounts for each state — the average cost of college for private institutions, in-state and out-of-state tuition. Note that these last two are only for public colleges.

In-state tuition is for students attending a college in the same state they reside, while out-of-state tuition is for those who enroll in public colleges in a different area. The latter may be significantly more expensive than the former. For example, Michigan State University charges 172% more for out-of-state tuition and fees. The same goes for Penn State — tuition and fees are about 100% more expensive for an out-of-state student than an in-state student.

Affordable college depends on the institution you want to attend and whether you remain in-state or travel outside the state for your education. MoneyGeek has offered three perspectives for college seekers.

For private colleges, where tuition isn’t affected by where you live, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia have the highest average cost, each exceeding $60,000 a year. Utah and Idaho are the most affordable, each with an annual average of less than $16,000.

Florida and Wyoming are good options if you're looking for affordable public colleges. Both are in the five most affordable states for in-state and out-of-state tuition. Vermont and Connecticut are among the top 5 most expensive states for both types of public college tuition.

The sections below highlight the most expensive and affordable colleges for private institutions and public in-state and out-of-state tuition.

Top 5 States With the Most Expensive In-State Tuition (2020-2021)

State
Average Total Tuition and Fees (Per Year)

1.

Vermont

$30,752

2.

New Hampshire

$29,222

3.

Connecticut

$28,425

4.

New Jersey

$28,335

5.

Massachusetts

$28,317

Top 5 States With the Least Expensive In-State Tuition (2020-2021)

State
Average Total Tuition and Fees (Per Year)

1.

Wyoming

$14,584

2.

Utah

$14,653

3.

Florida

$15,543

4.

Montana

$16,931

5.

New Mexico

$17,113

Top 5 States With the Most Expensive Out-of-State Tuition (2020-2021)

State
Average Total Tuition and Fees (Per Year)

1.

Vermont

$41,963

2.

Michigan

$39,427

3.

Connecticut

$36,881

4.

Virginia

$36,193

5.

California

$34,398

Top 5 States With the Least Expensive Out-of-State Tuition (2020-2021)

State
Average Total Tuition and Fees (Per Year)

1.

South Dakota

$12,924

2.

District of Columbia

$13,004

3.

North Dakota

$13,501

4.

Wyoming

$14,710

5.

Florida

$18,322

Top 5 States With the Most Expensive Private Tuition (2020-2021)

State
Average Total Tuition and Fees (Per Year)

1.

Massachusetts

$65,784

2.

Vermont

$63,371

3.

District of Columbia

$61,912

4.

Rhode Island

$61,692

5.

Oregon

$58,711

Top 5 States With the Least Expensive Private Tuition (2020-2021)

State
Average Total Tuition and Fees (Per Year)

1.

Idaho

$15,180

2.

Utah

$15,911

3.

West Virginia

$22,303

4.

Arizona

$22,862

5.

North Dakota

$24,624

Average Cost of College FAQs

Knowing the average cost of college can help you prepare for a potentially significant future expense. Here are some commonly asked questions about it and its various contributing factors.

How much did college cost in 2021?
What factors contribute to the average cost of college?
Why is out-of-state tuition higher than in-state?
How do public institutions differ from private institutions, and do they impact college costs?
How much is the average student loan in 2021?

Expert Insights on the Average Cost of College

MoneyGeek reached out to professionals in the education and finance sectors to get their insights about the rising average cost of college. In this discussion, we explored the contributing factors and the effect of online education.

  1. What factors have contributed to the increase in tuition fees for private and public colleges?
  2. How has the option of online college courses affected college costs?
  3. Considering how much college costs per year, how can you advise parents and students about managing their finances better to prepare for this event?
Herman Berliner, Ph.D.
Herman Berliner, Ph.D.Professor of Economics at Hofstra University
Dr. Amanda Sterk
Dr. Amanda SterkAuthor of College Unmazed
Richard L Benbow, III
Richard L Benbow, IIIRegional Vice President of Western Governors University
Dan Cieniewicz
Dan CieniewiczFinancial Planner at Hyperion Financial

Related Content

Attending college is a great accomplishment, and those who receive the privilege should be proud of this milestone. College costs, however, can be a considerable undertaking for individuals and families. If this is you, consider the many online resources. Here are some pages to help get you started.

About Angelique Cruz


Angelique Cruz headshot

Angelique Cruz has been researching personal finance for three years, with expertise in macroeconomics, financial statistics and behavioral finance. After a decade-long stint as a management consultant creating professional and personal development programs, she now specializes in writing informative content around personal, auto and home loans. Angelique has a degree in psychology from the Ateneo de Manila University.