Understanding College Costs: A Guide for High School Students and Families

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Week 3: Understanding College Costs: A Guide for High School Students and Families

As your high school student gears up for college applications, understanding the financial side of higher education is critical. College costs are more than just tuition and fees. I’ll break down the costs associated with a year of college to help you and your student plan a college affordability budget.

Understanding the Total Cost of College

The average college cost and a family’s budget depend on various factors. Public colleges are often less expensive than private colleges for in-state students. The average cost for a public college is about $30,000 per year. However, out-of-state students can expect to pay more at the same institution since their out-of-state revenue dollars are used to offset costs for residents or fund scholarships and programs. The average cost for an out-of-state student at the same school is about $48,000 per year.

As you might expect, private colleges are more expensive on average than public schools.  Students attending private colleges have an average budget of $60,420.

The figures above represent the Cost of Attendance (COA), covering tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses.

The Difference Between Sticker Price and Net Price

While the Cost of Attendance gives an overview of potential expenses, the net price provides a more accurate picture of what you’ll pay. Colleges host net price calculators on their websites to help students and families understand what they might expect to pay. The Net Price Calculator will ask a student questions and provide a preliminary report to break down the costs and possible merit or need-based awards.

Strategies for Managing College Costs

  • Research college fees. Are there any that your student can opt out of?
  • Research residence hall and dining plan options. Are first-year students required to live on campus? Are they required to sign up for a specific meal plan? What housing options are available after the first year, and how much will that cost?
  • Research travel costs. Will the student live a driving distance away? Will they need to take a flight to get to their school? How often will the student come home? What will this cost?
  • Understand if the colleges on your list award merit scholarships, need-based scholarships, or both.
  • Understand if the student qualifies for merit, need-based, or both.
  • Apply for Financial Aid: Make sure you take advantage of opportunities like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other scholarship options. Every bit of financial aid can help reduce your overall college expenses.

Navigating college costs can be daunting, but with a clear understanding of the expenses involved and strategic financial planning, you can make informed decisions to manage these costs effectively. Good luck and happy researching.

If you have any questions, reach out. I work with families every year to help them understand the college search and application process.


“Sylvia is a phenomenal college counselor. She is patient, kind, organized, and extremely knowledgeable about the college application process." - Susie

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