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How to compare college costs

Published February 29, 2024| minute read

    A big part of choosing the right college for many students is how much it costs to attend. It’s important to understand that college costs go beyond just tuition and fees as you start trying to assess the actual cost of attending college. Other factors, such as living expenses, graduate outcomes, and financial aid, can also significantly impact the financial cost of attending college.   

    Continue reading as we explore how to compare college costs.

    Step 1: Research each school’s cost of attendance

    A school’s cost of attendance is the total cost of attending for one academic year. The cost of attendance can vary greatly depending on the type of college, its location, and your program of study.

    As you research what schools to apply to and their costs, consider exploring the following:

    A school’s published cost of attendance

    Most colleges and universities will have a published cost of attendance on their website or in their admissions materials. This breakdown will typically include tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other estimated expenses such as transportation and personal expenses. This is a great starting point to determine how much it will likely cost to attend a school before factoring in any financial aid you might receive.

    Potential personal expenses

    While many schools estimate personal expenses in their cost of attendance figures, these numbers are generally broad estimates. Because of that, it may be a worthwhile exercise to estimate your personal expenses at various colleges as you consider school costs to help get a truer picture of how much each school might cost you to attend. 

    Many of these personal costs will depend on your situation. For example, a commuter student living with their parents will likely have lower housing costs than a student living in on-campus housing. Some students will need to pay for health insurance, while others won’t.

    Consider your situation carefully to try to add up potential expenses for attending specific schools that best reflect your individual situation.

    The college location’s cost of living

    The cost of living can vary greatly depending on a college or university's location. For example, living costs in a big city will typically be more expensive than in a smaller town or rural area. Consider the cost of housing, food, transportation, and other expenses when comparing the cost of living in different locations.

    Pay careful attention to housing if you plan to live off campus at any point, as this can significantly vary from location to location and could have a significant impact.

    Potential additional costs

    When considering the cost of attending various schools, it can be essential to look for additional costs associated with attending certain schools. These costs can add up and potentially impact the total cost of attending a school.

    Some colleges and universities charge fees for access to technology resources such as computer labs and software. All of a school’s fees may be included in the cost of attendance, but sometimes they may not be. Having the most complete understanding of expenses when trying to put together an accurate picture of what attending a school will cost you can be essential.

    Study abroad and extracurricular costs

    If you plan to study abroad or get involved in extracurricular activities such as Greek life, social clubs, or intramural athletics, there may be additional fees to consider, such as travel, uniforms, and housing. Consider your plans for your time in school and factor in what they might cost you.

    Step 2: Use schools’ net price calculators

    Many colleges and universities have a net price calculator on their websites that can help you estimate the actual cost of attending the college or university after taking into account financial aid. Students will enter information about themselves to find out what students in similar situations paid to attend the institution in the previous year after taking financial aid into account.

    This may be the best way to estimate what a particular school will cost you before you’ve been accepted to a college or university, factoring in financial aid. Remember to still consider any research you’ve done on other expenses you might incur from attending a particular college or university.

    Step 3: Review financial aid packages

    The financial aid package a school offers you can significantly impact your total cost of attendance at that school. Financial aid packages can include grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and federal student loans. The amount and types of aid you receive can vary widely depending on your financial need and the schools you apply to.

    Once you’ve been accepted to schools and have financial aid packages to compare, you’ll be able to better assess the affordability of each college or university you’ve been accepted to. 

    Step 4: Consider graduate outcomes

    Beyond just looking at what a particular college will cost you to attend, another financial consideration to potentially make is assessing graduate outcomes for various schools. Doing this can provide valuable insights into the potential return on an educational investment.

    Graduate outcomes include metrics like:

    • Employment rates
    • Average starting salaries
    • Types of industries or companies where alums are employed

    This information can help you gauge the typical outcome of a college’s programs in terms of how they may help prepare graduates for the workforce and in meeting their career aspirations. For example, a high employment rate and strong salary figures may indicate that a college has a robust alumni network, effective career services, and a curriculum aligned with industry demands.

    Additionally, knowing the types of industries or companies where alums are employed can offer a glimpse into the networking and professional opportunities that may be available through a college.

    Remember that it’s impossible to predict your exact outcome in the job market if you were to graduate from a specific school. Still, this research might provide valuable insights as you decide what school to attend.

    Final thoughts

    When comparing college costs, keep in mind you probably won’t have an accurate picture of what a school will cost you until you’ve been accepted and have a financial aid package in hand to assess. That said, there are ways to research and compare costs before you’ve been accepted to schools as you explore your options.