Each college charges a different price for tuition and some tack on a variety of fees. But there's a bigger problem: Many students at the same college will pay different prices to attend. Some receive scholarships based on merit and others receive need-based grants, largely depending on how much their parents earn.
And there's another thing that makes it hard for families to plan. You often won't see the final first year's bill until your child has already committed to enrolling.
Parents have little to rely on besides average costs before they know where their child wants to enroll.
So what are the average costs?
Related: Why your financial aid is less than you expected
Start with those from The College Board, which provides the nationwide net average cost to students. This calculation takes into consideration the financial aid award students receive, making it more accurate than simply looking at the sticker price.
Here's what most families actually paid, including the price of tuition, fees, room and board for full-time undergraduate students during the 2016-2017 school year:
- Two-year community colleges: $7,560
- Public colleges for residents: $14,210
- Private non-profit colleges: $26,100
But that's just for one year. Colleges can increase how much they charge for tuition in future years. They could also reduce your financial aid package. Just because you received a grant from the college in your first year doesn't mean you'll receive it each year you're enrolled.
Over the past two years, the average net price went up by $250 at community colleges, by $900 at public colleges, and by $1,760 at private colleges.
Those things are hard to predict. But to estimate the four-year cost, we've assumed that costs have remained the same each year, and that the student completes their degree on time.
Here's the ballpark cost of the full degree:
- Two-year community colleges: $15,120
- Public colleges for residents: $56,840
- Private non-profit colleges: $104,400
Related: 7 ways to pay for college without a scholarship
Remember, these are average costs. If you know which colleges your child is considering, you can get a more personalized estimate using the institution's online Net Price Calculator. Each school has one on their website. It will offer an estimate based on your own financial information.
If you won't be able to afford the college out-of-pocket, there are ways to lower the cost. Living at home and commuting to school can save a lot of money. The average cost for room and board is $8,060 a year at community colleges, $10,440 at public colleges, and $11,890 at private institutions.
You can also negotiate and ask the college for more money. Experts say this is worth a shot, especially if there's something about your financial situation that the college doesn't already know about from the information you reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
You're not alone if you need to borrow money to foot the bill. The typical family uses loans to cover 20%