Skip to main content

Within Reach home


The Truth Behind How Much College Costs

College • August 3, 2020 • Ashley Boucher


What you’ll learn

  • Learn about the cost of one college class or credit.
  • Learn about average cost of college overall to prepare financially.
  • Learn about different tools that can help price your college costs.


Nine in ten families believe higher education is an investment in the student’s future, and the vast majority agree it’s part of the American Dream. With so much agreeance on the value of college, the cost is probably clear-cut, too, right? Well, not so much.

Similar to shopping for a car, the sticker price for college won’t give you the full story on how much a college, or a college class, costs. And while college doesn’t necessarily come with the same negotiating process your family might experience when shopping for a new vehicle, it can definitely cause the same amount of stress or uncertainty if you’re not an expert on the different variables that go into determining the price.

For starters, and as you might expect, the choices you make about the “type” of college and where you’ll attend will impact much you’ll end up paying. Decisions like private vs. public, 2- or 4-year, and in-state vs. out-of-state, can drive your college costs up or down.

Some families prefer to look at the cost of a single credit hour or semester, especially if you think you’ll take classes here and there. That’s fine, and many colleges will offer the price that way. But comparing the total cost of all classes needed to complete your program with tools like the College Planning Calculator can help you better prepare and build a customized plan.

How much does a college class cost?

First, you can look into the cost per credit hour. Like shopping around at different dealerships for different models, this price tag will vary, so let’s imagine the average cost of a college credit hour is $200. If a class is three credits, or credit hours, then the class is $600.

While shopping based on credit hour can be helpful, it may be equally (if not more) beneficial to look at your total spend, or the cost it’ll take to complete your program, on average.

Average cost of college

To get an understanding of the average cost of college, it’s helpful to hear from college families, many of whom have become experts on planning and paying. According to 2,000 families surveyed for “How America Pays for College 2020”,families spent an average of $30,017 on college in 2019-20.

When you’re thinking about total cost, think about the extras. Consider all of the expenses associated with completing your degree. Make sure to include room and board if you’re staying on campus, or transportation costs if you’ll be driving back and forth. Of course you’ll need to eat, too, so part of your budget should include the campus meal plan or groceries. You’ll also need to account for books, supplies, and other costs like lab fees, etc. Creating a monthly budget is a convenient way of estimating your future expenses and savings needs.

College cost estimations and tools

There are a lot of tools in place to help you access higher education, and you can do it without breaking the bank. Resources include the Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), scholarships, grants, and dedicated college savings accounts (like 529s).

If college is still a few years away, using a college cost calculator can help you figure out how much your total cost of college will be, including a 5% increase in costs each year. Meaning you can look at a school’s annual cost this year, add in the number of years until you or your student goes to college and how long you expect to be in college, and find out just how much it may cost.

If college is in your near future, you’re probably already looking at different schools. Once you’ve decided on some that you’d like to apply to, it’s likely time to file the FAFSA, which opens up on October 1 for the next academic year. This is the gateway to $150 billion in federal aid. By filing the FAFSA, you could potentially unlock free money for college (scholarships and grants), and the opportunity to work on campus in exchange for a paycheck you can apply toward tuition or expenses (work-study). Plus, you can see if you’re eligible for subsidized or unsubsidized federal student loans. All of these details will be a part of the financial aid offer letters you’ll receive from the schools that have accepted you for admission.

Once you have your financial aid offer letters in hand, you can start comparing your options. Use a spreadsheet to understand the best financial aid offer, which will be determined by the total amount of expenses against the aid you can secure (and whether that aid is made up of mostly free money, or mostly loans).

Next, look for scholarships. Do this early and often, so you can drive that sticker price of college down even further with the best kind of bargaining tool: free money. Use online search tools, like Sallie Mae’s Scholarship Search (home to more than $24 billion in scholarships) to match with available scholarships.

When it comes to the cost of college, it’s not a simple one-size-fits-all price tag. But with the right tools, and a commitment to do some homework, you can gain a clear understanding of what’s ahead, and make sure your college investment is worth every penny. And this investment, unlike cars, won’t depreciate in value once you’re off campus!


Ashley is a Sallie Mae employee and a graduate of Immaculata University. A mom of two young girls, her favorite dinner topic is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).


Within Reach home

Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Sallie Mae makes no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect Sallie Mae’s view or endorsement. Consult your own attorney or tax advisor about your specific circumstances.

External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties, and Sallie Mae assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.