The Cost of College: A Realistic Estimate

Mar 19, 2024 3 min read

If you have a child who’s planning to attend college, you might be wondering how much it will cost over the course of four years to avoid or minimize student loan debt

The costs of higher education will likely pay off in the long term. Workers with a college degree make about $21,900 more per year (on average) than those who have a high school education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Type of School

Of course, tuition and living expenses vary significantly depending on the type of school your child chooses to attend, the area where the school is located, how far the school is from home and other factors. In general, community colleges are often the least expensive, and spending two years there before transferring to another school for a bachelor’s degree can save a lot of money compared to attending a four-year college from the start.

Among four-year colleges, state schools where you qualify for in-state tuition are usually less expensive than out-of-state public colleges or private colleges. But there are cases where, for example, a private college may cost less than an in-state school. Your child’s academic performance and extracurricular activities and your family’s income factor into how much you’ll pay. 

Dig into websites for colleges your child might be interested in and find the “net price calculator.” It’s not a guarantee of how much you’ll pay, but it can give you a better idea of what it might cost to go there.

Interested in the cost of attending one of the schools in the NCAA tournament? Check out this cost of college bracket.

How much does college cost? Here’s a breakdown of what you might expect.

College Costs

The type of college you choose will greatly impact how much you pay. According to CollegeBoard’s Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, the average estimated annual budgets for full-time undergraduate students range from $19,860 for public two-year in-district students and $28,840 for public four-year in-state students to $46,730 for public four-year out-of-state students and $60,420 for private nonprofit four-year students.

The average list prices for tuition and fees for 2023-24 are:

  • $3,990 for a public two-year-in-district undergraduate student (a $100 or 2.6% increase from 2022-2023)
  • $11,260 for a public four-year in-state undergraduate student (a $270 or 2.5% increase from 2022-2023)
  • $29,150 for a public four-year out-of-state undergraduate student (a $850 or 3.0% increase from 2022-2023)
  • $41,540 for a private nonprofit four-year undergraduate student (a $1,600 or 4.0% increase from 2022-2023)

So, how much does college cost for four years? While some college expenses may be covered by financial aid, payment assistance has not kept up with the increasing price of higher education. In 2023-24, full-time in-state students at public four-year colleges need to cover an estimated average of $28,840 in tuition and fees, meal plans, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other personal expenses. 

Tuition and Fees

The tuition freezes and discounts many colleges offered during the pandemic have come to an end at most schools. Prices started to climb in the 2022-2023 school year and continued in 2023-2024, according to U.S. News & World Report

The average tuition and fees at private ranked colleges climbed by about 4% in the last year. The increase was smaller at public schools: about 2% for in-state students and about 1.4 % for out-of-staters.

Books and Supplies

The books and supplies a student will need depend on their choice of major and many other factors. It’s smart to budget about $1,200 per year, since the average cost is $1,215, according to Best Colleges

Your child can save money by buying used textbooks or renting textbooks. Also, more faculty members are moving to free, open educational resources, so it’s possible that the cost of books and supplies may decrease.

What You Can Do to Prepare

Investment Accounts

The best way to save for your child’s college education is to start early. There are a variety of savings account options, but a 529 plan is one of the most common methods people use to save for college. 

With a 529 plan, your earnings grow tax-deferred, meaning these accounts have tax advantages. As long as you use withdrawals to pay for qualified higher education expenses, these funds are free from federal income tax. Typically, your child is the beneficiary of a 529 plan. You can change the beneficiary to another person in your family if your child doesn’t go to college or graduates with money left in the account.

Part-Time Work

If your child is old enough, encourage them to get a part-time job. This is a good way to teach them financial responsibility. Be sure to set expectations around how much your child will save for college. 

Consider a summer job if your teen’s academic workload doesn’t leave room for regular employment. Seasonal work like mowing lawns, raking leaves and shoveling driveways also presents earning opportunities.  


There are countless scholarship opportunities based on community, field of study, college and more. Your teenager should start searching for and filling out these scholarship applications in their final years of high school. Looking for scholarships can feel overwhelming. Federal Student Aid is a good place to start.

Federal Grants

Federal Pell Grants are money that you never have to repay, so if your child qualifies for one, it’s a handy way to shrink your college bills. Pell Grants are awarded based on need, up to $7,395 per year. Every student should fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Financial Student Aid) to find out what financial aid they qualify for. 

Get Help Planning for College Costs

Ultimately, a college education is an investment in your child's future and your community. If you’re looking for the best strategies to pay for this investment, talk with a Farm Bureau financial advisor about how much money you’ll need for college and how you can get there.

*Neither the Company nor its agents give tax, accounting or legal advice. Consult your professional adviser in these areas.

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