The Financial Cost of College

An empty college classroom

College is not cheap. Families should know the costs before they send their children away…

The financial cost of college has increased rapidly since the Great Recession. This has hit family budgets hard:

Paying for college is expensive, and many families are feeling the pinch as tuition costs soar. 

College tuition prices are a lot higher today compared with two decades ago. For instance, the average cost for tuition and fees among National Universities – private and public – has risen significantly since the late 1990s, according to U.S. News data. Those increases aren’t limited to these universities; costs at other four-year institutions and community colleges have also grown. 

Higher education policy analysts say most of the hikes in tuition among private and public four-year institutions coincided with the Great Recession.


When recession hits, people lose their jobs and go back to school. The demand for education increases. Colleges take these opportunities to raise tuition costs, which are very high:

Tuition and fees vary from college to college. Among ranked National Universities, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2019–2020 school year was $41,426 at private colleges, $11,260 for state residents at public colleges and $27,120 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey. When it comes to costs, the average tuition and fees to attend an in-state public college is a third of the average sticker price charged at a private institution.

At public two-year institutions, tuition and fees cost approximately $7,345.44 on average per full academic year for in-state students in 2017-2018, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent available data.

The website ValuePenguin published their own results of average college costs for the 2017-2018 year. They summarized them in a table that I reproduce here:

Table of average college costs from ValuePenguin

The costs will only continue to increase over time. Until there is a massive change in public thought, the financial cost of college will continue to exceed inflation.


Parents have to consider the fees along with the tuition. The article continues:

The biggest chunk of college costs is usually tuition – the amount of money required for instruction. Especially at the undergraduate level, students are often required to pay fees; these costs usually need to be paid to enroll in and attend class.

“It really all should be called tuition, but some play a little shell game when they don’t want to advertise tuition increases. So they increase a fee over here, and you end up with something complicated like that. Others include it all as one straight fee,” says Nate Johnson, founder and principal of Postsecondary Analytics, a Florida-based higher education research firm.

The Ivy League universities are the most expensive:

Colleges with the highest published prices – Columbia University and University of Chicago – are among highly selective four-year institutions. These institutions charge $61,000 and $59,298, respectively, for their sticker price, but many students pay less than this amount to attend.

Harvard wasn’t far behind, at $51,925.


Most colleges offer financial aid packages to a certain percentage of students every year. This financial aid reduces the baseline annual costs. Even Harvard offers financial aid to its incoming students.

There is a website that incorporates all this data and summarizes it for you: College Scorecard, offered by the US Department of Education. Parents can type in a particular college, and the calculator will return a summary of the annual average cost, typical salary after graduating, and all the median debt after graduating. Here is an image of what the results page looks like for Mercer University, a private liberal arts college in Georgia:

Compare the calculator’s estimate to the school’s estimated costs of $53,889 for the 2019-2020 academic year:

The results page also offers a list of fields of study, their median annual earnings after graduating, and their median student loan debt after graduating. This is a useful way to quickly gauge the value between degrees at that college and between colleges.


Church members may ask their deacons about college recommendations. Deacons must be ready to explain the costs to their members. They should be ready with these tools to share with them. They are quick and easy to use. This can be done on a phone or church computer in minutes.

The outcome of the discussion ought to be this: look for a cheaper way.

One cheaper way involves students taking CLEP exams while still in high school to get college credit at a massive discount.

For example, the private university used in this article sets the tuition rate at $1,250 per credit hour. A typical 3-hour class will cost $3,750. But taking a CLEP exam typically costs about $100. If passed, the student can get credit for an entire course. They may spend $150 in study materials per course. That’s a discount of 93% off the retail price.

The more CLEP exams a student can pass before entering college, the less tuition they will have to pay. But more than this, they will have to spend less time on campus. This will reduce room and board, too.

The CollegeBoard website provides a convenient search tool that lets parents quickly and easily see which CLEP courses a particular college or university will accept. The link is here.

But here’s the thing: this strategy requires time and planning. This can’t be done to great effect at the last minute. Students should start at least by their second or third year in high school, if not sooner. This means their parents need to know the option exists.

Deacons can help inform parents. They may not know about this possibility. The diaconate could develop a one-page summary that explains the benefit of this plan and totals up the estimated cost savings. This would be an effective tool to help get the point across.