College costs have increased faster than inflation since 1981, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That makes estimating how much money you need for college a bit tricky. Not to mention, prices can vary drastically depending on the college. Nonetheless, the cost of higher education has become increasingly transparent, providing you the tools you need to calculate the amount you will need.
Paying for Tuition
College tuition can be expensive, even at a community college, if you haven't saved enough money. The College Board, a not-for-profit mission driven organization, reported the average undergraduate tuition and fees for the 2014-15 academic year at a public four-year, in-state school was $9,139. This was 2.9 percent higher than the previous year. If you include tuition, room and board, the average was $18,943, up 3 percent from the previous year. Taking more than four years to complete a bachelor's degree only adds to the cost. And prices can vary drastically. For instance, average tuition and fees at a private, non-profit four-year school in the same year was $31,231, or $42,419 if you include room and board. Average tuition and fees at a public, out-of state four-year school was $22,958 in 2014-15. With room and board included, the average was $32,762. The average tuition and fees at a public, two-year school was $3,347 in 2014-15.
Calculating Financial Aid
Although the college price tag can be quite alarming, many students never actually pay sticker price. You can use the Federal Student Aid FAFSA4caster located on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid website to estimate the amount of federal aid you can expect to receive. This can reduce the amount of money you need to come up with yourself. Federal student aid includes the federal Pell grant, student loans and federal Work Study program. The College Board reports that two-thirds of all undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid. Keep in mind, however, that relying on a lot of loans to complete your college education means you'll likely face a lot of debt after you graduate.
Comparing the Net Price
Colleges and universities are required to have a Net Price Calculator on their websites that give you the real picture of how much college will cost. Rather than just give you a list of college expenses, the Net Price Calculator tells you how much the average student actually pays out-of-pocket. It does this by disclosing how much federal financial aid and other scholarships you are likely to receive at the school to reduce the cost of attendance, which includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and other expenses.
Understanding College Costs
The amount of money you will need is partly dependent on your lifestyle. Commuting from your parent's house to a local university, for example, can help you save money on room and board but you'll also miss the on-campus experience. That's not always an option anyway because many colleges and universities require students to live in campus housing and purchase meal plans. While schools are required to quote an average cost of attendance for students, the actual cost could be more or less than the average. In addition to the normal costs such as tuition, room and board, you should factor in transportation costs and other miscellaneous expenses such as a cell phone, clothing and traveling home for breaks. Taking a part-time job can help reduce the amount you need to save and also give you extra spending money for miscellaneous costs.
Sara Mahuron specializes in adult/higher education, parenting, budget travel and personal finance. She earned an M.S. in adult/organizational learning and leadership, as well as an Ed.S. in educational leadership, both from the University of Idaho. Mahuron also holds a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in international studies-business and economics.