How Does College Tuition Work & How Do You Pay It?September 16, 2022
When you think about the cost of college, you likely think about tuition first. But what is tuition? And what does it cover?
Tuition is the price you pay to become a student and take classes at college or university. It covers the cost of your enrollment and instruction and the use of facilities like a campus library.
Although college costs have increased significantly in recent years, tuition is still only a part of the overall cost of attendance. Find out what tuition covers and doesn’t — and what options exist to help you pay for your education.
What Is Tuition and What Does It Cover?
College tuition sometimes referred to as the school sticker price, is the price you pay for your classes. Tuition costs vary by school, but you must pay tuition to become a student at a particular college.
In recent years, the cost of college tuition has significantly increased. According to The College Board, the tuition at public, four-year universities has increased by nearly 25%, with the average cost of tuition increasing from $8,655 to $10,740 per year. At private schools, the difference is even more substantial; the average tuition at private universities increased from $29,056 to $38,070 — a 31% difference.
Tuition vs. the Total Cost of Attendance
Although the tuition prices may be intimidating enough, tuition isn’t the only expense you have to worry about as a college student. While you’re in college, there are several other expenses that you have to cover, such as your school fees and housing. Combined with your tuition, these additional expenses make up your total cost of attendance (COA).
The COA includes:
- School-required fees
- Room and board
- Necessary supplies or equipment
- Personal expenses, such as health insurance
The COA can vary significantly from school to school. On average, the COA ranges from $22,690 for public universities to $51,690 for private schools.
|Public Four-Year School (In-State Student)||Private Nonprofit School|
|Average Cost of Tuition for 2021-2022||$10,740||$38,070|
|Average Total Cost of Attendance for 2021-2022||$22,690||$51,690|
How Do You Pay Tuition?
Most people think of tuition as their biggest expense. But as you’ve learned above, your college tuition is only a portion of your COA.
Few people have the money to pay for school out of their earnings, so how does paying for college work? In general, students and their families utilize a combination of the following financing options:
If you’re lucky, your parents or extended family may have tucked away some money for your education. They may have started a college fund in a 529 education savings plan or simply stashed money in a savings account. Every dollar you and your family contribute will reduce the need for other forms of financial aid and save you money over the long run.
Scholarships are awards that are typically given because of your achievements, such as a high GPA or outstanding athletic performance. When people think about college tuition, they often hope for a scholarship that provides a full ride. But scholarships come in all shapes and sizes. Some may only cover a small portion of your tuition, while others can provide enough money to cover your expenses.
Don’t overlook smaller scholarships; scholarships of any size reduce how much of the COA you have to cover yourself. And, unlike student loans, they don’t have to be repaid.
You can use the following sites to find scholarships:
Much like scholarships, grants are awards that don’t have to be repaid. However, they’re usually awarded based on your financial needs rather than your achievements. Grants are available from the federal government, state agencies, schools, and non-profit organizations. To qualify for grants, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the federal, state, and school deadline.
Some colleges and universities participate in federal or state work-study programs. If you meet the school’s financial aid eligibility requirements, you may qualify for a work-study program. If you qualify, you’ll work in a position related to your major and earn money to cover some of your educational expenses. Contact your school’s financial aid office to find out if your school participates in work-study programs.
If you need help covering your remaining tuition costs or COA, another option is to take out student loans. As a college student, there are two main loan types:
- Federal: Federal student loans are issued by the U.S. Department of Education. They have fixed interest rates, but the rates are generally lower than you’d get with other kinds of loans. Federal loans also have more flexible repayment options, such as alternative payment plans and loan forgiveness programs. However, they limit how much you can borrow per year and over your lifetime.
- Private: Private student loans are issued by banks, credit unions, and other lenders. They typically have higher interest rates than federal student loans but have different loan limits. With most lenders, you can borrow up to 100% of the school-certified COA, so a private student loan can help you cover the remainder of the COA after you reach the limit on other financial aid.
How does college tuition work?
What is tuition? It’s just one of the expenses you’ll have to pay as a college student.
To ensure you pay your college tuition on time — and maximize your financial aid options — contact your school’s financial aid office and ask about deadlines and preferred payment methods.
If you do need to borrow money to pay for college, you can use ELFI’s Find My Rate tool to check your eligibility for a private student loan and view possible loan options.