The Most Expensive Colleges in the US

See how your school stacks up to the competition

Two college students talk as they walk through campus
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If you’re thinking about attending college, you’ve probably realized that it’s a major financial commitment. “For most students and their parents, the financial aspect of applying and paying for college is a stressful one,” said James Lewis, president and co-founder of the National Society of High School Scholars, in an email to The Balance. “Year upon year, millions of students take out student loans and graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.”

However, you don’t have to sign up for a lifetime of debt just to get a degree. It’s important to choose a school that fits your budget. And keep in mind that a school’s “sticker price” is often much higher than what you’ll actually pay once you factor in financial aid—as long as you take the initiative to find and apply for it. 

Not sure where to start? We rounded up the 20 least and most expensive schools in the U.S. so you have an idea of how much a college education could cost. Plus, you’ll learn why college is so expensive in the first place and how to keep your costs down.

Key Takeaways

  • Factors such as a school’s location, reputation, and whether it’s public or private affect the annual cost to attend, which can vary widely.
  • The sticker price for a four-year degree is usually much higher than the true cost of attendance once financial aid is considered.
  • Students should apply for free financial aid such as scholarships and grants, as well as low-cost loans, to help pay for college.

Why Is College So Expensive?

There are a lot of reasons why college is so expensive these days. In general, college tuition prices have been creeping up thanks to factors such as inflation, decreased state funding, higher enrollment, and more. However, some schools can also be more expensive than others due to certain characteristics.

Private vs. Public Colleges

Private universities tend to be more expensive than public ones, in part because of how they’re funded. While public schools receive funding from the federal, state, and local governments, private schools rely on donations and tuition money to cover costs. However, even though private colleges tend to be more expensive on paper, it’s possible for an expensive private school to have a lower net cost than a public school if it awards a significant amount of financial aid to its students.

The average cost of college tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 school year was $10,560 for state residents at public colleges and $37,650 for private colleges.

Location

Where a college is located can also affect the cost of tuition. For one, attending college as an out-of-state student raises the price considerably; public colleges are run and funded by the state via taxes, so residents of the state can attend those schools at lower tuition rates. Colleges that are located in high cost-of-living areas may also charge higher tuition prices.

Reputation

Along with cost, a school’s reputation is often a major deciding factor for prospective students. However, you might not realize that the two go hand-in-hand. Highly reputable colleges usually charge higher costs to attend, while less reputable colleges tend to charge lower rates.

The 20 Most Expensive Colleges in the US 

Wondering how U.S. college costs compare? We ranked the top 20 most expensive four-year colleges based on annual cost of attendance for the 2019-2020 school year, along with their net costs (including financial aid). Note that the ranking excludes community colleges, technical schools, and other colleges focused on highly specialized degrees.

School and Location Total Cost for In-State Students Living on Campus Average Net Cost for In-State Students Living on Campus (Includes Financial Aid)
University of Chicago (Chicago, IL) $81,531 $27,315
Columbia University in the City of New York (New York, NY) $79,752 $23,306
Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA) $79,539 $32,727
Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) $78,654 $24,664
Barnard College (New York, NY) $78,044 $28,204
Scripps College (Claremont, CA) $77,588 $32,709
Brown University (Providence, RI) $77,490 $29,392
University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) $77,459 $29,528
University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA) $77,264 $25,802
Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) $77,152 $33,574
Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH) $77,124 $34,077
Duke University (Durham, NC) $77,029 $27,020
Washington University in St Louis (St. Louis, MO) $76,910 $26,869
Fordham University (Bronx, NY) $76,891 $36,761
Trinity College (Hartford, CT) $76,850 $34,460
Amherst College (Amherst, MA) $76,750 $18,524
Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX) $76,710 $36,222
Yale University (New Haven, CT) $76,645 $17,549
Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA) $76,600 $29,638
Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, CA) $76,475 $22,161

The 20 Least Expensive Colleges in the US 

Along with the most expensive colleges, we ranked the 20 least expensive colleges according to the same factors. See how they compare below.

School and Location Total Cost for In-State Students Living on Campus Average Net Cost for In-State Students Living on Campus (Includes Financial Aid)
Brigham Young University - Idaho (Rexburg, ID) $12,448 $7,167
Elizabeth City State University (Elizabeth City, NC) $13,496 $2,350
Great Basin College (Elko, NV) $14,818 $7,437
Dalton State College (Dalton, GA) $14,948 $6,543
Bismarck State College (Bismarck, ND) $15,395 $9,420
Cameron University (Lawton, OK) $16,162 $7,952
Oklahoma Panhandle State University (Goodwell, GA) $16,275 $10,537
Middle Georgia State University (Macon, GA) $16,339 $10,116
Rust College (Holly Springs, MS) $16,700 $11,317
Montana State University-Northern (Havre, MT) $17,025 $13,174
Kentucky State University (Frankfort, KY) $17,078 $7,076
Gordon State College (Barnesville, GA) $17,116 $9,935
University of North Carolina at Pembroke (Pembroke, NC) $17,160 $10,228
Savannah State University (Savannah, GA) $17,255 $10,220
East Georgia State College (Swainsboro, GA) $17,324 $8,874
Fayetteville State University (Fayetteville, NC) $17,521 $5,899
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (La Crosse, WI) $17,684 $14,580
The University of Montana-Western (Dillon, MT) $17,699 $13,929
Southeastern Oklahoma State University (Durant, OK) $17,708 $8,237

Paying for College

Even though some colleges have high price tags, you’ll notice that the net cost can often be much lower than the published price. That’s largely due to the financial aid students receive. 

Some of the priciest and most reputable universities offer large amounts of financial aid, making it possible for students of all financial backgrounds to attend. Check out our list of the colleges that offer the most bang for your buck.

Below is a breakdown of the types of financial aid available to college students.

Scholarships

Lewis said that when it comes to paying for college, students should seriously consider financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back, such as scholarships. These can be awarded based on financial need, though they’re usually awarded on merit for academic excellence, athletic ability, or other talent. Scholarships can be found through national programs, local community resources, religious organizations, employer programs, advocacy groups, and more. 

Lewis added that it can be time-consuming to find and apply for scholarships, but it’s well worth the effort since you likely qualify for a number of opportunities. Using a scholarship search engine can help.

Grants

Grants are another form of free financial aid, though they differ from scholarships in a couple of ways. First, they tend to be need-based. They’re also usually awarded by the government or school you plan to attend.

Student Loans

Federal student loans are another type of financial aid. Unlike scholarships and grants, however, they do need to be repaid. The benefits of federal loans include low, fixed interest rates and several government-sponsored programs to help borrowers afford payments more easily.

If between free aid and federal student loans, you still have a gap in college funding, it’s also possible to borrow private student loans. These loans are offered by private lenders rather than the federal government. They’re often recommended as a last resort since they’re generally more expensive, require good credit to qualify, and don’t come with the same government-backed protections.