Skip to content
College Spending Financial Tips Smart Spending

The $64,000 Question: How Much Does College Really Cost?

Nov 21, 2019

When you buy expensive things — a TV, a car, a house –, you most likely take more and more time to carefully consider the risks, rewards, and probable outcomes associated with the purchase as the price increases. No one wants to waste hard-earned money. In addition to knowing the purchase price, you will likely have a good handle on the ultimate cost, including after-purchase expenses such as maintenance and insurance. This is true for nearly all consumer transactions — except for purchasing an education.

When you are consuming education, there seem to be too many unknowns and a whole new language, acronyms, and factors to consider. Before answering the $64,000 question, let’s understand the language:

  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC): The dollar amount the US Department of Education calculates that a student and his/her parents should contribute to pay for college. Caveat: the EFC is not a cap on the family’s contribution and colleges are not obligated to offer financial aid for the difference between the cost of college and the family’s EFC.
  • Sticker Price: Just as on a new car, the Sticker Price for college is meant to indicate the final price. Caveats:  A college’s Sticker Price is the average cost to attend the college for one year, including tuition, fees, room, board, transportation, living expenses, books, and supplies – together known as the Cost of Attendance. Remember: this is for one year, and most students typically purchase at least four years’ worth. 
  • Net Price: The net price is the price of a college to a student after their financial aid is subtracted. Caveats: In a Financial Aid Award Letter, the college will show the Sticker Price and subtract the amount of financial aid it will offer a student. This “aid” likely includes student loans that have to be repaid and work-study that has to be earned. Also, it is not unusual for the Net Price of a college to be more than a student’s EFC.

Back to our $64,000 Question: How Much Does College Really Cost? That depends and is part of the reason the word “average” is italicized is above. How far off the average will your student be for all of the variable expenses such as travel, living expenses, books, etc with obvious consequences for being above or below the average. College really costs the Net Price plus incidentals and the difference between what the college calculates for Cost of Attendance and what your student actually spends.

So, what are some of the variables and ways to save money?


According to the College Board, the range for spending on course materials and textbooks is approaching $1,500 per year. The college bookstore is convenient, but there are most likely cheaper options.  

Online bookstores are a great source for finding new and used books, often with options to rent or buy a used book at a discounted price. Some professors may also put materials on reserve in the college library so students can have free access to the materials.

One tip to reduce the total cost of books: sell books back at the end of the semester, either online or at a textbook buy-back event that many colleges hold. 

Transportation and travel: 

Whether your student goes to college in-state or across the country, transportation is necessary. Setting price alerts in advance for air travel might help reduce the cost. Also, college websites may offer discounts at nearby hotels and area businesses.  


Each college has its own system for meal plans, and understanding them can save money. Some have à la carte plans; others offer all you can eat’ options. It’s important to note that what you think your student will need for food might be different than what gets used, be flexible and willing to switch plans in the second semester if needed.  

Student discounts:

Students may sign up for student reward programs with major companies such as Adobe, Amazon, Spotify, and Verizon. These companies often offer substantial discounts of up to 50% off for students with an Edu email address for verification. 

Other Costs

The cost of attendance covers the average cost for the student to attend, but what about your cost of visiting for Parent’s Weekend or other occasions?

Many colleges also permit students (sometimes not including freshman) to have cars on campus – a potentially large initially unbudgeted expense: insurance, gas, maintenance, parking fees.

Consuming education is expensive, but it can be affordable as long as you understand in advance what will be factored into the total cost of college for your son or daughter. Unlike purchasing a TV, car or house, the cost of purchasing a college education can vary greatly from one family to the next – for the same result: a diploma.