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Comparing College Tuition is Harder Than Youd Think

Jun 16, 2008 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 1 Comments

Interested in going to college for less? In years past, the traditional advice has been to opt for a public university over a private one if you’re cost-conscious; these schools tend to have lower tuition.  And this is still true: according to the College Board, the average cost of a private four-year college was $23, 712—compare that to the cost of the average public four-year school, at $6,185.

But it’s tough to compare the sticker price of online colleges, because you often don’t know what you’re actually going to pay until you’ve applied, gotten in, and received a financial aid package.  And traditionally, private colleges are more generous with their grant aid.  The College Board states that students at private colleges get an average of $9,300 in grant aid—that’s money they don’t have to pay back—compared to $3,600 at public four-year colleges.

In addition, a college’s sticker price often doesn’t include room and board.  The College Board’s report [pdf] on trends in college pricing in 2007 states that students at public colleges pay an average of $7,404 per year in room and board costs in addition to tuition, while private school students paid an average of $8,595. 

Still, the old adage that private schools cost more isn’t necessarily true anymore.  Many top schools are offering more breaks for students even as their sticker prices soar.  Stanford has waived tuition costs for students whose parents make under $100,000.  Harvard has waived tuition for parents who make under $60,000.  Dartmouth offers free tuition for students whose families make under $75,000.

In addition, many schools have recently expanded the number of merit-based scholarships they offer.  While scholarships based on income can be a blessing to low-income students, merit-based scholarships ensure that some middle-income students are eligible for grants and scholarships even if their families earn too much to be considered for income-based grants.  This eases the burden on middle-income families. 

You can still save money by choosing in-state schools instead of schools in far-flung locations, especially for public schools.  According to the College Board’s report [pdf], out-of-state students at public schools paid an average of approximately $10,000 per year more than in-state students paid.

As a middle- or low-income student, your bill might be bigger at a public school than it would be at a private university.  But traditional colleges, public or private, aren’t the only place where students can look to save money on college tuition.  Online schools are often cheaper than either public or private schools. 

For instance, a Bachelor’s Degree in English at the University of Maryland costs approximately $7,045 per year—with no room and board costs necessary.  A online bachelor’s in computer science from Charter Oak State College costs approximately $5,746 per year.  And a online bachelor’s in political science at Troy University costs about $5,210 per year.

Students save a great deal of money on tuition costs with online schools, because there’s no room and board costs to factor in.  In addition, students at online schools are eligible for the same Federal and state-level financial aid as traditional students, and many online schools offer college grants similar to those offered at brick-and-mortar institutions.

It’s becoming tougher than ever to pay for college.  Tuition costs are rising, federally-backed loans and grants are not rising enough to keep up with costs, and the larger credit crunch has begun to affect student loans, making it more difficult for parents and students to qualify.  While most families would like to be able to judge a college based on its sticker price, it’s very difficult to do that.  Most families don’t pay the sticker price, and it’s tough to see how colleges compare until you’ve received a financial aid package from each one. 

Perhaps the best advice is still the same as guidance counselors have been telling high school students for decades: pick the colleges you want to go to.  Stay in-state and look closely at online schools if you want to save money on tuition and room and board costs.  Apply to a range of schools, and choose the one that gives you the best deal.  The more hard figures you have to compare, the easier it will be to make your choice.


MichaelKeathley Over a year ago

Excellent advice, Jennifer. All too often people just look at the per credit cost without factoring other variables. Some schools also include all book and course related fees in their "tuition" which makes their rates appear higher, too.

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