Discussing the Real Cost of College for Parents

Find out the real cost of college, including tuition, room and board, textbooks, and more.

Discussing the Real Cost of College for Parents
Scott Graham

It isn’t always easy speaking to your kids about finances, but it is always necessary. When discussing the real costs of college, there are some key topics which must be covered. Most students and parents, when they think about the cost of college, tend to focus on the cost of tuition. And, indeed, the cost of tuition is definitely the largest cost of attending college. 

However, there are many other costs both directly and indirectly related to attending college that parents and students all too often don’t think about. There’s the cost of room and board, textbooks, college laptops or desktops, internet bills, and much more. In fact, according to a survey by Fidelity, parents are on track to meet just 33% of their college savings goal for their children to attend college.

Read on to find out the real costs of college that parents especially should be aware of.

Tuition Costs of Colleges

A significant portion of the average cost of college is accounted for by tuition costs. And the cost of tuition, adjusted for inflation, has surged over the last 10 years, let alone since when you parents attended college. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average cost of tuition per year (academic year) has reached $16,646.92 for all institutions — that includes four-year public schools, four-year nonprofit private schools, and four-year for-profit schools. When the average cost of tuition per year is broken down by different types of colleges and universities, the cost of tuition becomes even more alarming.

Average Cost of Tuition Per Year for Public Colleges and Universities

Looking exclusively at four-year bachelor's degrees-awarding public colleges and universities, the average cost of tuition per year is $9,349.17, as of the 2019-2020 academic year. Granted tuition costs tend to change, and generally increase over time, if we take $9,349.17 and calculate the cost of tuition for four years at a typical public college, it comes to $37,396.70. Thus, four years at the average public college or university will run you roughly $37,4000. If parents are not or cannot cover this cost, then it’s likely the student will have to take on student loans to pay for this immense cost. And that student debt repayment will follow them for a long time.

Over the last 10 years, the average cost of tuition per year at a four-year public college has risen by 17.3%, adjusted for inflation: From $7,971.53 in the 2009-2010 academic year to $9,349.17 in the 2019-2020 academic year. What’s more, over the last 20 years, average cost of tuition per year has soared by 83.7%: From $5,088.33 in the 1999-2000 academic year (when many younger Gen X parents were attending college) to where it stands now at $9,349.17. An 83.7% increase is only about 16% off from the cost of tuition doubling over the course of 20 years — and again, the growth is not due to inflation.

Average Cost of Tuition Per Year for Private Nonprofit Colleges and Universities

Private schools can be notoriously expensive, especially those Ivy League schools and those selective liberal arts colleges that dot the map of the United States. As of the 2019-2020 academic year, the average cost of tuition per year for a four-year private nonprofit college is $35,806.62. Over the course of four years of college, that comes out to approximately $143,226.47. That is a serious price tag, especially for middle-to-lower-middle-class families. And, of course, this is the average for all four-year nonprofit private schools; many individual private colleges and universities can have much higher tuition costs. 

Over the last decade, the average cost of tuition per year at four-year private nonprofit colleges rose by 18.1%, faster than the growth of public institutions: From $30,306.16 in the 2009-2010 academic year to $35,806.62 in the 2019-2020 academic year. Interestingly, looking back over the last 20 years, the growth in the average cost of tuition per year at private schools has not risen as fast as public colleges and universities. From an average cost of tuition per year of $22,991.45 in the 1999-2000 academic year, four-year nonprofit private school tuition rose by 55.7%, reaching where it stands now at $35,806.62. The increase in four-year public college tuition of 83.7% far surpasses private school tuition growth.

Cost of Room and Board at College

Besides the tuition costs of colleges, there is the cost of room and board to consider. First off, what is room and board in college? Room refers to the rental arrangements on campus at a college. Board refers to the meals supplied on campus by the college. Both room and board exclude rents and food at off-campus, unaffiliated locations. Let’s take a look at the average cost of room and board:

Average Cost of Dormitory Rooms at Public Colleges and Universities

Based on the latest data from the NCES, the average cost of a dormitory room at a four-year public college or university was $6,654.89, as of the academic year 2019-2020. That amount is up 22.9% from 10 years ago, when in the academic year 2009-2010 the average cost was $5,416.95; and these dollar figures are in constant 2019-2020 dollars, so inflation is taken into account. A growth in the cost of dormitories of almost a quarter is pretty astounding. What’s more, compared to 20 years ago, the average cost of a dormitory room at a public four-year college grew by 73.9%, from $3,827.65 in the 1999-2000 academic year to $6,654.89.

Average Cost of Dormitory Rooms at Private Colleges and Universities

Using the same dataset, we can examine the average cost of dormitories at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities. According to the latest data from the 2019-2020 academic year, the average cost of a room in a private college was $7,397.78, nearly $800 more than the corresponding cost at a public four-year school. The average cost of a dormitory at a four-year private nonprofit college grew by 20.4% over the last 10 years, from when it was $6,145.73 in the 2009-2010 academic year; again, it must be reiterated, these figures are inflation-adjusted. 

Average Cost of Board at Public Colleges and Universities

The NCES considers a board consisting of 20 meals a week. Based on their latest data, the average cost of board at a public four-year college or university was $5,031.40. The cost of board has risen over the last 10 years like the cost of dormitories, though not as much. From costing $4,456.80 in the 2009-2010 academic year, the average cost of board grew by 12.9% over the next 10 years, reaching $5,031.40 in the 2019-2020 academic year. 

Average Cost of Board at Private Colleges and Universities

The average cost of board at four-year private nonprofit colleges grew by a similar rate as public schools over the last 10 years. From an average cost of $5,137.74 in the 2009-2010 academic year, it grew by 12.1%, reaching $5,760.82 in the 2019-2020 academic year. The price differences between board at a private nonprofit college versus a public college isn’t that great and neither is the 10-year growth. However, if your student lives in on-campus housing and has a meal plan for all four years, the average cost of board at a four-year private nonprofit college is approximately $23,043.28. Combine that cost with the average cost of four years of private school tuition ($143,226.47), and between board and tuition alone you’re shelling out nearly $166,270. Now, add on four years of $7,397.78 for a dormitory, and your new total is now roughly $195,861. And, of course, the costs of tuition and room and board do not include other key expenses like the costs of textbooks, class materials, cable, internet, phone plans, clothing and accessories, and possibly your student living off-campus in an apartment or house with its own rent, likely more expensive than the cost of a dormitory.

Cost of Textbooks and Class Materials

The costs of textbooks and class materials, essential items for taking college courses, are another source of financial pressure. According to Education Data Initiative, in 2021, the average cost for full-time, undergraduate students at a four-year university for books and supplies per year was approximately $1,240, with students spending the most (an average of $1,420) at public two-year colleges compared to $1,220 per year at private four-year colleges, which averages out to about $450 to $625 per semester. Over the course of four years of college, that $1,240 average tallies up to about $4,960. So, in the course of your student’s college career, you can expect to shell out almost $5,000 in textbooks alone. This is a big part of the reason nearly 66% of students avoid buying course material due to the high price tags.

Fortunately, nowadays, an entire industry of online textbook renting has emerged to help parents and students deal with the costs of textbooks and class materials. Some of the best sources for cheap textbooks to rent include AbeBooks, CampusBooks, Chegg, TextbookRush, and many more. These sites also typically feature the ability to buy discounted textbooks and sell textbooks for cash, in addition to textbook rentals.

Cost of Off-Campus Rent

Many students after their freshman or sophomore year like to move into a residence that’s off-campus, namely, not a dormitory. This move can add a significant amount of money to your total college bill. Plexuss has a list of the U.S. cities with the most colleges in them, and here we’ll take a look at the typical rent in these college-heavy cities, based on the rental data from Redfin:

Cities with the Most Colleges

Approx. Number of Colleges

Average Monthly Rent (April 2022)

Los Angeles

230

$3,381

New York City

200+

$3,925

Chicago

148

$2,457

Boston

118

$3,780

Philadelphia

115

$2,331

Dallas

105

$2,149

Houston

100+

$1,766

Atlanta

93

$2,130

Take note that these rental figures are monthly rents. The average costs of dormitories from the section above are for the entire academic year. For example, the average cost of a dormitory at a four-year public college or university is $6,654.89, as of the 2019-2020 academic year. Considering a student will likely pay 10 months’ worth of rent when living off-campus — August, September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, and May — the average rents for off-campus residences in these cities mentioned will far surpass the $6,654.89 cost of a dormitory at a public college as well as the $7,397.78 cost at a private nonprofit college. Here’s a look at the hypothetical total of 10 months of off-campus rent at an apartment or house in the cities mentioned above:

  • Los Angeles: $33,810

  • New York City: $39,250

  • Chicago: $24,570

  • Boston: $37,800

  • Philadelphia: $23,310

  • Dallas: $21,490

  • Houston: $17,660

  • Atlanta: $21,300

And these rental figures are just for the 10 months that your student will be living there for one academic year. Multiple years of living off-campus and paying market rate rental prices will add another massive cost to your overall college bill.

Discuss Contribution Expectations

Now that you have a good estimate of how much the student will be spending during per semester, subtract all financial aid, grants, scholarships, and family contributions from the total. What you’re left with is everything the student is responsible for during the semester. Make it clear how much you expect the student to contribute to this total, whether it’s from summer savings or a part-time job. While the total may seem overwhelming, discuss exactly how the student can pay off their portion, as this may ease some of the burden. A family payment plan might be useful, allowing the student to pay off his/her portion in smaller amounts on a regular basis. 

Learn to Save 

Students with newfound freedom may find it hard to save their money, especially in an urban setting. Make sure your student has access to a savings account with which they can regularly add money. Set up a plan to save about 20% of the student’s earnings and stress the importance of balancing a checkbook to avoid costly overdraft fees or unexpected balances. 

Give Support

Support your student by making sure they understand you are there if they have any problems or questions. You’re probably more experienced with this type of thing than they are, and any advice you can give will be useful. Just remember saving and budgeting correctly is a learned process, and you can expect the student to make some mistakes throughout the first year – be patient!

The Bottom Line on Real Costs of College

Higher education is a huge investment for both you and your college-bound child, and there is no better time to begin teaching your child about managing their finances than before it’s time to start school. With all the freedom of choice that comes with living away from home, there is added financial responsibility. It’s crucial that you provide your high school grad with the tools to manage their own personal finances.

According to JumpStart Coalition, a financial literacy group, 87% of college students and 90% of high school students said that they rely on their parents for guidance. Yet only 26% of 13- to 21-year-olds have had conversations with their parents about wise money management. In relation, many high school graduates lack the skills necessary to manage their personal finances – even basic ones like balancing a checkbook. To add to the confusion, college students are often bombarded with credit card offers, many with very high APR rates. It’s not difficult to see how a college freshman, with a credit card in hand, can get buried in debt. All in all, it can be a very overwhelming experience, and teaching your children money management skills will help them to become financially savvy adults.