Planning for College Costs

Ohio State University LibraryCollege costs have increased more dramatically than the rate of inflation. When a college education for a single child can cost up to a quarter of a million dollars, paying for college is a real stretch even for many affluent families. Here’s an overview of what your homeschooling family needs to know about college costs.

What Does College Cost?
It is surprisingly difficult to give a single answer to that question. Some students get their full education at no cost at all. Some pay over $65,000 a year. What a student pays depends on the type of college and the amount of merit scholarships and financial aid they are eligible to receive. More than in any other area of college planning, understanding your individual profile is incredibly important when it comes to predicting college costs.

Of course when we look at college costs there is more than tuition to consider. There is also room, board, fees, books, living expenses, and transportation. According to the College Board Trends in Pricing, here are the average listed 2014-2015 costs for different types of institutions. The figures below are average for tuition, room, and board charges.

  • Public Two Year: $11,052
  • Public Four Year In-State: $18,943
  • Public Four Year Out of State: $32,762
  • Private Four Year: $42,419

We need to remember these are just averages and costs vary widely.

Here are some examples of typical prices in the 2014-2015 academic year.

  • University of Michigan, out of state freshman and sophomores: $55,404
  • University of Vermont, in state: $29,674
  • Duke University: $63,530
  • University of Minnesota, out of state: $37,974
  • Stanford University: $62,801
  • University of South Dakota, out of state: $18,926

Sticker Price versus Your Cost
Just like with car shopping, most families do not end up paying the full “sticker price” for college. The price you pay, also called the net price, may be lower due to merit scholarships and financial aid. Merit scholarships are given to students without consideration of financial need. Merit scholarships recognize a student’s accomplishment in academics or in areas such as community service, arts, and sports. Homeschoolers who seek to maximize the amount of merit aid their students receive are advised to pay attention to academic performance, testing, and developing a strong extracurricular profile during high school.  Homeschoolers who are aiming at top awards should make sure they help their students document their accomplishments. Careful planning of the college list can also offer an advantage in merit scholarships.

college affordabilityFamilies often fail to accurately guess their eligibility for financial aid. Middle class families are typically upset when they find out they qualify for less than they expected, and some upper-middle class families who assume they are ineligible may be surprised to find out their student receives some aid if they choose a higher cost school.

Instead of guessing, the best approach is to begin with assessment of what your student may qualify for. Using online tools for estimating prices can help provide some insight into your potential costs. These resources can be helpful.

Net Price Calculators   Net price calculators let you estimate merit and financial aid awards at different colleges. This is the best tool for getting an initial estimate of costs at the schools your student is interested in.

FAFSA4Caster allows you to estimate eligibility for financial awards from the federal government.

Graduation Rates Make a Big Difference in Costs
One final factor to consider as you look at costs is the typical time until graduation. Many may not realize that barely half of students who begin college ever graduate. Those who do graduate are often taking more than four years. Delayed graduation is such a trend that education analysts now speak primarily in terms of the six year graduation rate, as though we’ve all just accepted college now takes six years. As you compare colleges look at the typical time to graduation. This can make a huge difference because the price of four years at a private college with a higher four year graduation rate may be less than six years at the lower cost state university where graduation more often takes five or six years.

Consultations Available: Individualized planning can make a significant difference in college costs. A carefully develop academic profile and well chosen college list can help maximize financial and merit aid options. Please see our services page for further details.


  • Regarding the six-year completion rates at some schools: From what I have noticed at a state college, students often take longer for two common reasons; college-searching parents will likely have insight into whether these factors will affect their own student’s progress. The most common reason might be that students have to work during the school year. While this helps with costs, it can also slow them down if they cannot carry a full-time course load; also, if they can’t keep up with schoolwork because of time demands, they might drop or fail courses, which then need to be repeated (delaying graduation).

    Also, students who are not sufficiently prepared for college-level work often take longer to graduate because they need to take more remedial math and writing courses, and/or need to repeat courses that they don’t pass the first time.

    Awareness of these factors might help parents put into perspective the average graduation times at a given college. For ex., if your student won’t need to work during the school year and has strong math and writing skills, she could be much more likely to graduate in four years from a college where the average might closer to six.

    • Thanks for your helpful comments. I agree that need for remedial courses and need to work long hours can slow down a student’s progress. The research also finds changing majors is a big factor in delaying graduation. Certain majors, such as engineering, can be difficult to complete in four years as well. The process for academic advising is a good thing to ask about during college visits. Some schools are much better than others at making sure students are meeting with a trained academic adviser every semester and staying on track with graduation requirements. Also, it is good to ask if students have difficulty finding room in required courses. With recession budget cuts this has become a huge issue at some public universities.

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