How Much College Costs (and Why It's Still Worth It)

Average Costs for Tuition, Room, and Board

Illustration showing a college student considering the average costs of college vs. the potential salary

The Balance / Ellen Lindner 

With the average cost of college steadily rising every year, many people may wonder if the hefty price tag is still worth it. Will you get a return on your investment if you put in all the time, effort, and money? As much of the research still shows, in most cases, going to college will still pay off in the long run.

Average Cost of Tuition

Typical costs vary widely by the type of institution. According to the College Board, the average cost of college tuition and fees (which may include the library, campus transportation, student government, and athletic facilities) for the 2019–20 school year was $36,880 at private colleges, $10,440 for state residents at public colleges, and $26,820 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

These numbers do not include housing, meals, books, or school supplies which could easily tack on another $10,000 to $18,000 a year. Multiply those numbers by four years of college, and you are looking at a hefty college bill. It’s no wonder that student debt levels topped $1.5 trillion in 2020.

Average Cost of College by Type of School
  Public 2-Year
(In-District)
Public 4-Year
(In-State)
Public 4-Year
(Out-of-State)
Private 4-Year
Tuition $3,370 $10,440 $26,820 $36,880
Room and Board $8,990 $11,510 $11,510 $12,990
Total $12,720 $21,950 $38,330 $49,870
Source: College Board, "Average Published Charges, 2018–19 and 2019–20"

Why a College Degree Is Still Worth It

Footing the college bill can be a tough pill to swallow when you look around and see many graduates struggling to find work. Still, the data largely supports the fact that college will be worth it for most students.

The Pay Gap

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the pay gap between those with a four-year degree and those with a high school degree is still significant. Those with a four-year college degree earn a median weekly salary of $1,248, whereas employees with a high school degree average $746. The difference is even higher when comparing employees with doctoral degrees with those with some or no college degree.

Average Salary and Unemployment by Degree Level
Degree Level Average Weekly Salary Unemployment Rate
Less than high school $592 5.4%
High school diploma $746 3.7%
Some college, no degree $833 3.3%
Associate degree $887 2.7%
Bachelor's degree $1,248 2.2%
Master's degree $1,497 2.0%
Professional degree $1,861 1.6%
Doctoral degree $1,883 1.1%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (Current as of September 4, 2019)

The Lifetime Earnings Gap

As you can see, this gap is further widened by the fact that the lower your degree, the more likely you are to be unemployed. Given higher unemployment rates and annual salary, it's no surprise that these numbers can add up to significant differences in the long run. In fact, not going to college could cost you dearly, to the tune of $1 million in lifetime wages, according to a Georgetown University study.

A study from the Oregon Employment Department found that, on average, graduates from the University of Oregon surpassed high school graduates in lifetime earnings at age 34. That's true with the cost of college included in the equation.

Why Degrees Matter

It's not just about going to college or not, though. The degree you choose also has a significant long-term financial impact. The same Georgetown study revealed a gap of $3.4 million in lifetime earnings between the highest- and lowest-earning majors. The top-paying majors unsurprisingly include STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), health, and business. The majors with the lowest median earnings are in education, the arts, and social work.

Average Annual Earnings Examples for Various Degrees
Degree Average entry-level salary Average mid-career salary
Computer science $62,000 $95,000
Finance $52,000 $85,000
Business $45,000 $70,000
Marketing $42,000 $74,000
Secondary Education $38,000 $50,000
Philosophy $36,000 $62,000
Source: The College Board. "Education Pays 2019," Page 26. Accessed May 18, 2020.

Of course, there are a lot of choices and a range of potential earnings for every degree. Our economy needs teachers and engineers. We need social workers just as we need accountants. It’s easy to obsess over what major could make you the most money, but it’s more important to find something that you enjoy in a field in which you can excel.

Useful Online Tools

There are many helpful resources online that can guide you in your decisions about your education. These include:

The Bottom Line

Before you decide that the price tag on college is too high, be sure to look at what the statistics show. The financial benefits of college, on average, far outweigh the immediate costs. If you are concerned about saving for college, check with a financial advisor to discuss a college savings strategy. 

Article Sources

  1. College Board. "Average Published Charges, 2018-19 and 2019-20." Accessed May 7, 2020.

  2. Federal Student Aid. "Federal Student Loan Portfolio," Download Summary. Accessed May 7, 2020.

  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Unemployment Rates and Earnings by Educational Attainment." Accessed May 7, 2020.

  4. Georgetown University. "The Economic Value of College Majors." Accessed May 8, 2020.

  5. State of Oregon Employment Department. "How Long Does It Take Bachelor’s Degree Graduates to Surpass Earnings of Their High School Graduate Peers?" Accessed May 8, 2020.