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The Average Cost of an Undergraduate Degree in the US

by Elissa Hansen

There’s no doubt about it: College tuition is rising in the U.S. One of the primary considerations for college applicants, along with which schools will accept them, is which schools they can afford. A look at the average tuition and the average net cost of public, private and for-profit schools can give you a sense of how much you can expect to pay when you go to college.

Tuition Versus Net Cost

From 2009 to 2011, the average tuition at public universities rose 15%, according to the U.S. Department of Education. However, in addition to considering the “sticker price” of colleges -- the dollar amount of tuition posted on their websites -- think about the net price that you’re likely to pay, which adds books, room and board to tuition but subtracts scholarships and financial aid. When considering these factors, the average net cost of attending a public university over the same period rose 4.6%.

Public Schools

Public schools are usually the least expensive option available to students, although the percentage of school budgets covered by federal and state appropriations for higher education dwindles every year. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center shows that for the 2010 to 2011 school year, the average undergraduate tuition was $6,669 at public schools granting at least bachelor’s degrees. However, the average net cost was higher, at $10,471.

Private Schools

Private schools are generally the most expensive option, and they include the most traditionally prestigious institutions in the U.S. -- schools like Stanford and the Ivy League universities. According to the College Affordability and Transparency Center, the average undergraduate tuition at private schools granting at least bachelor’s degrees was $21,949 from 2010 to 2011. Yet, unlike the net cost of public schools, the average net cost of private schools was lower than its tuition: $18,770.

For-Profit Schools

For-profit institutions, which include most online universities, fall between public and private schools in terms of average tuition cost, yet soar to the top of the scale when you consider net cost. Again, according to the College Affordability and Transparency Center, the tuition for the 2010 to 2011 academic year was $15,056. However, the average net cost for these institutions that granted at least bachelor’s degrees was $22,387. This has to do in part with the relative unavailability of scholarships to for-profit college students, many of whom fund their education through federal loans.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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