How Much Should College Cost?

The average cost for a year of college in the United States is over $35,000, according to Educationdata.org. But the sticker price only tells part of the story. And, as it turns out, that price doesn’t tell that story very well. The cost of college varies based on countless factors including your access to merit aid, athletic scholarships, and need-based grants. This makes it hard to determine the actual cost of college, which can in turn really complicate the question of exactly how much you should pay for college. So while we can’t tell you exactly what you personally should pay for your college education, we’ll discuss the factors you’ll want to consider before you can answer that question for yourself.

How Much Should College Cost?

In January of 2021, New York Times journalist Ron Lieber released his new book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. We had the opportunity to speak with Lieber. Our conversation offers some illumination on the matter of just exactly how much one should spend on a college education. It may not surprise you to learn that the answer is rather complicated. That’s because there is no one-size-fits-all price-point for a college experience. The right price tag depends entirely on your goals and expectations from a higher education. What’s more, it depends a great deal on your personal circumstances, as well as the opportunities which are realistically open to you.

Lieber points to the core irony that college can be extraordinarily expensive, that an enormous number of families sign up for this expense each year, and that so many of these families do so without really knowing what they hope to get out of a college education.

“So what is college?” Lieber asks.

“College is about the intellectual roller coaster,” he explains. “It’s about the education. College is about the kinship. It’s the people you meet along the way, the friends and the mentors. And it’s about a credential.”

Lieber makes the essential point that before you can even begin to determine what college should cost, you need a clear sense of what you hope to achieve by attending college. What is it that you’re actually paying for?

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Some Basic Realities About the Cost of College

Before we discuss what you’re paying for, let’s take a quick glance at how much you might pay for it. According to EducationData.org, in-state tuition for a public 4-year college is more than $9,000 annually; $27,000+ for out-of-state public school students. Tuition and fees for a year at a private university averages $37,200, without including room and board. With all expenses taken together, an average year of private college education is priced well above $50,000 per year.

That all sounds very expensive. Indeed, Forbes reported in 2020 that the average cost for a four-year college education has increased by just a shade under 500% between the 1985-86 and the 2017-18 school years. This price hike, points out Forbes, is twice the rate of inflation.

But there’s good news—and some fairly opaque math—behind these numbers. And given everything that you hear about the staggering cost of college, this news may come as a surprise.

“On average,” Lieber writes, “what families are actually spending hasn’t gone up by completely unreasonable amounts over the past twenty years, even as the list prices have gone to the moon. That’s because the discount rate has gone up steadily over time as well.”

...what families are actually spending hasn't gone up by completely unreasonable amounts over the past twenty years.

As Lieber’s book reports, The College Board incorporates this data into its calculations and finds that “the price families paid for tuition, room, and board for full-time, in-state students at four-year public universities was $15,400 in 2019-20, after any discounts. In twenty years it has risen by 70 percent. At private colleges the average net price was $27,400, but the rise over the previous twenty years had been just 21 percent.”

Those “discounts” that Lieber speaks of—merit aid, need-based grants, athletic scholarships—these are the features that muddy up the cost equation, and often bring the real cost of many colleges well below the sticker price. Lieber points out the staggering fact that 89% of all students attending private colleges get a need-based or merit aid discount. According to Lieber, this brings the average price for room at board at private colleges down to $23,952 per year, somewhat less than what it would cost to attend an out-of-state public school.

We point to this instance only to suggest that you can’t truly know the cost of a college until you begin the application process—which obviously makes it hard to know whether or not you should apply to a college based on how much it purports to cost. We see the bind you’re in.

For a deeper understanding of the factors that go into shaping the actual cost of college, as opposed to its sticker price, check out our Guide to Paying for College: The Real Cost of a Higher Education.

Otherwise, the best place to begin is, as Lieber advises, with a careful consideration of what you hope to get out of college.

What do you hope to get out of college?

Lieber’s book offers tremendous insight into the wildly labyrinthian nature of college pricing. He elaborates on some of the ways that this pricing structure reinforces racial and socioeconomic inequalities. He also provides a wealth of other surprising facts about the actual cost of college, as opposed to the price tag that you’ll see in all the brochures. We strongly urge you to read his text in its entirety.

For our purposes, the most important aspect of Lieber’s text (and our interview with him) is the revelation that the cost of college is a highly individualized matter. College pricing is actually a mysterious elixir of merit aid, need-based grants, and athletic scholarships. Every student has a different set of specs, as it were. As a result, the price of college is not necessarily what you’d assume it is. Nor can we even begin to tell you what a given college will actually cost you without first asking you for a lot of personal information.

The most important aspect of Lieber's text is the revelation that the cost of college is a highly individualized matter.

So in lieu of collecting your social security number and bank statements, the best we can do here is to provide you with a framework for evaluating what you should likely spend on college based on your personal outlook. Lieber advises focusing this evaluation on:

  • The education;
  • The kinship; and
  • The credential.

“Until you know which of these three things or all three things and in which proportion you’re shopping for,” says Lieber, “you can’t even begin to define what value means or what you should spend.”

The Education

First and foremost, it’s all about the kind of educational experience you want. This starts at the top with features like accredited degree programs, course offerings, and class sizes. But let’s presume for a moment that you, like a great many prospective students, are an undecided major. You need to evaluate the educational experience in a manner completely independent of the subject you’ll ultimately stake your degree on.

Lieber says the secret is to look at who is actually providing the education.

“I want access,” he told us “to professors who are full-time instructors…not adjunct instructors who are having to hustle around three states over the course of five days for a living...not graduate students who are using my children as guinea pigs. I want full-time instructors who actually want to be in the classroom and who don’t hate teenagers.”

Before you even consider the subjects that interest you, find out whether the schools you’re considering offer real and genuine access to thought-leaders and influencers in their fields, or merely access to their grad school disciples. This is an important consideration as you weigh the value proposition of a given college. Are you paying for access to a Major League slugger or a minor leaguer who’s hoping to make the squad next spring?

find out whether the schools you're considering offer real and genuine access to thought-leaders and influencers in their fields, or merely access to their grad school disciples.

The answer to this question will play an important role in what you should pay for college.

Find out what gives a college or university “desirability,” according to the data scientists at Academic Influence.

The Kinship

Naturally, what happens in the classroom is only a part of the equation. Whether you’re living on campus, commuting to classes, or getting to know your classmates through Zoom, enrolling in college makes you part of a community. Join a community that offers its own opportunities for enrichment.

Lieber observes that one of the greatest virtues of a college education is the opportunity it creates to meet people that you’d never meet elsewhere. In part, we join these diverse and distinctive communities in order “to live with, to be in a classroom with people who have viewpoints and backgrounds and perspectives that are somehow different than yours, so the line of inquiry starts there.”

Think about the kind of culture, community, and campus you want to be a part of. Where can you contribute, learn more about yourself, and come into contact with friends, classmates and colleagues who might shift, expand, and enhance your understanding of the world? And of course, if kinship means having somebody with whom to share a late-night coffee, a study-cramming session, or a night out, where can you find this person? These are critical questions that you should be asking yourself as you evaluate, visit, and apply to colleges.

Equally as important as building relationships with your classmates, says Lieber, is seeking a school where you can build meaningful connections with professors. This, says Lieber, is one of the oft-overlooked determinants of educational satisfaction. He tells us that “people who are happiest have often had mentors as undergraduates. So you wanna ask an institution, point blank, what are you doing to encourage, to nudge faculty members and other administrators and the undergraduates into forming these kinds of mentor-mentee relationships.”

Do professors at the schools on your list have a reputation for giving of their personal time, insight, and guidance? Will you have the opportunity to pursue personalized research and study endeavors with the support of a qualified mentor? Or will your interactions be largely contained to 200-person lecture halls and scant office hours?

Do professors at the schools on your list have a reputation for giving of their personal time, insight, and guidance?

Again, before you can decide how much you should pay for a college experience, think about the type of educational community where you’re most likely to find kinship, both with your classmates and your professors.

Find out which academic communities have ranked highest for the influence of both their professors and alumni.

The Credential

This is the big one. Before you decide you want to go to college, you must decide where you actually need to go to college. Of course, the big business of college ranking places a heavy emphasis on prestige.

Check out our examination of the role played by Reputation Survey in most college ranking schemas.

And it goes without saying that prestige doesn’t come cheap. Even with the deep discounts dished out by the nation’s top private schools, elite institutions like those in the Ivy Leagues still charge a king’s ransom. Even after you’ve applied all the coupons, these schools cost enough that their campus communities are mostly made up of affluent students. Moreover, as the sticker prices for elite institutions go up, the acceptance rates slide precipitously downward.

In other words, this particular type of credential is available for only a few.

Fortunately, says Lieber, only a few actually need degrees like this. It’s true, he notes, that students with exceptionally lofty goals should indeed consider the elite institutions as their best path forward. And in such cases, students should spend what it costs to attend a Harvard, Princeton, or M.I.T.

...students with exceptionally lofty goals should indeed consider the elite institutions as their best path forward. And in such cases, students should spend what it costs to attend a Harvard, Princeton, or M.I.T.

But, says Lieber, “Not everybody wants to be a baseball General Manager, not everybody wants to be a senator, not everybody wants to go to Goldman Sachs. This is like a teeny, tiny sliver of the 1%, and it’s easy for people to kind of get obsessed with these amazing stations in life that you might get to, and the fact that maybe the odds are a little bit better if you’ve come from a really selective prestigious institution.”

But, he notes, “Everybody else in America goes and does completely different things and can easily achieve the same or higher level of both happiness and income, doing all sorts of stuff. And a Princeton degree is not required for all of those other 99% plus things.”

The credentials required to do the other 99% of things are extremely varied. This means that there are countless degree programs and pathways that will be defined by something other than prestige. Far more important is how suitable your credential is to your immediate career goals.

The Best of the Rest

The big takeaway here is that your college experience may indeed be defined by something more than the elite status of your school. In fact, the statistics say that for the majority of students who simply won’t gain admission into, or be able to afford, the elite schools, this must be true. So as you determine what you should spend on college, give serious consideration to whether or not your career goals absolutely demand that you attend an institution at the top end of the price spectrum.

Granted, says Lieber, if you can afford it, and it has everything else you need—refer back to the cardinal importance of education and kinship—then by all means, spend the money.

If you have a kid on your hands,” says Lieber, who is absolutely sure that they wanna go do one of these things where there’s a lot of Ivy leaguers running around, then yeah, you know what, the odds might be a little bit better ’cause they’re gonna be rubbing shoulders for four years with other people who are gonna be going to do those things or whose parents did those things. But for everybody else, which is like the vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of people, you probably don’t need to pay $300,000.”

You can get a valuable college education without overspending.

This should come as good news. You can get a valuable college education without overspending. But in order to do so, you must be asking the right questions. And for most students, these questions have less to do with your degree’s prestige, and far more to do with the type or educational and social experience you’d like to have on the way to that degree.

As Lieber says, “If you haven’t framed the questions around value and around intent and around the definition of success, then you’re doing it wrong, and there’s a pretty good chance you will waste money.”

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That’s one reason that tools like Custom College Ranking can be extremely valuable during the college search process. Factors like affordability, location, student body size and course offerings can have a defining impact on your college experience.