Heading off to college can feel like a momentous rite of passage. For some, it signifies the start of life independent of parents and siblings. For others, it’s an exciting first step toward a desired profession.
There are so many factors that prospective students and their families think about when it comes to choosing what college to attend. They likely weigh a school’s admission criteria, its location and size, its academic offerings, and its student housing options, among other traits.
And for many families, college prices—and the availability of financial aid—are heavily considered.
After all, the cost of college includes tuition and add ons like books and living expenses. And the cost of these things vary widely from school to school.
Unless money is of little to no object, the cost of college will most likely be part of your reasoning to pick a college.
But perhaps it doesn’t have to be the deciding factor. Below are some ways to think about the price of college and the pros and cons of making cost one of the primary reasons to choose (or not choose) a college.
Comparing the Cost of College, and Other Factors to Consider
According to the National Center for Education Statistics , 19.9 million people were projected to enter the American university system in the fall of 2019. Of those, 6.0 million were headed to two-year institutions or junior colleges, while about 13.9 million were expected to enroll in undergraduate programs at four-year colleges.
Attending a two-year institution is one way people cut costs when it comes to college. That’s because for the 2019-2020 school year, the average annual cost of tuition and fees at a community college was $3,730, compared to an average of $10,440 for a year at a public 4-year university.
And that latter cost is for in-state students. If you’re an out-of-state student at a public university, your average annual cost is a whopping $26,820, and that jumps to $36,880 per year if you opt to attend a private 4-year university.
Based on these numbers, it’s clear that one big advantage to attending community college is money related. If you have limited funds and student loans or financial aid options aren’t accessible or enough to fund a pricier college, you may still be able to tackle the fees required for your local junior college. Some community colleges even offer free tuition.
Other advantages of a two-year program include flexible class schedules (helpful if you’re trying to hold down a job at the same time) and smaller class sizes. Smaller class size can mean more attention and support, if you need that in your academic journey.
Despite these advantages, the numbers show that just over twice as many students opt to attend a four-year university. Some may seek the brand power and recognition behind a degree from a four-year institution.
Some may be looking forward to the social opportunities that come with dorm living and entering college as a freshman, rather than as a transfer student starting their third year. Some argue that the networking that helps your move along your professional tract starts in college, adding undetermined value to your years on campus.
College completion rates can vary greatly as well, a fact that some families may take into consideration. A study published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that of the students who started college in the fall of 2012, just 58% had earned a degree by 2018 . Of students at public four-year institutions, 65% graduated. At public two-year colleges, 39% completed the program with a degree.
The Dangers of High College Cost
Social capital opportunities and completion rates aside, it is likely worth considering how much debt you are likely to be saddled with when you graduate from your school of choice.
Plenty of college students piece together the money it takes to attend one of their top college picks, which may include a mixture of funds from parents, private loans, federal aid, and more.
That being said, it’s smart to have a clear sense of what your particular debt mountain might look like, given what school you choose to attend. According to data from the Federal Reserve , more than half of college students borrowed money to help pay for their education.
Each family has to determine its own financial limits when it comes to paying for college.
And students have to think ahead to their post-college life. What are the estimated salaries for the jobs you may have after graduation?
How does that compare to your estimated student loan payments? Will it be manageable?
Data shows that some graduates truly struggle to make their payments—11% are delinquent on their loans , meaning they haven’t paid their bill in 90 days or more.
On the flip side, that means that about 89% of borrowers are making student loan payments on time. If you choose a college that ticks most of your boxes—academic and social opportunities, tuition and cost of living you can reasonably afford—then paying for that education over time will hopefully feel worthwhile.
Tackling a High-Priced College Experience
The National Center for Education Statistics surveyed students who were in the ninth grade in 2009, who then went on to graduate from college. Of the sample, only 65% of students reported completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
Options like federal aid and scholarships can influence how much you’ll actually be responsible for paying, so if you’re ranking colleges by price, it can be helpful to factor in any aid awards you’ve been offered. These factors can also play a role in paying your college tuition bill.
Here’s a quick list of things to look into as you figure out your plan to pay for college.
• Apply for scholarships related to your field of study or personal experience— this is gifted money you don’t have to repay, but deadlines and other requirements apply.
• Consider working a part-time job while you’re in school, using your earnings to pay for bills or books.
• If your parents aren’t able to help, don’t give up! Make a plan to fund your education on your own.
• Consider taking out private student loans, being mindful that you may need a student loan co-signer to do so (unless you have established credit already).
Taking out a private student loan is an option if you have looked closely at your college budget and have a manageable funding gap to fill.
When borrowing student loans, it may make sense to borrow only what you need, so that when college is said and done you have as little debt as possible to manage. And consider setting up automatic payments to help you avoid missing any bills.
SoFi’s private student loans also offer a discount for those borrows who set up automatic payments, as well as up to four different repayment options. Borrowers can qualify online and benefit from absolutely no fees.
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