When you are in the process of adding up the potential bill for higher education, it’s wise to start with a general calculator that can help you estimate the cost of college.

The Vanguard College Cost projector factors in the number of years until college, the number of years you’ll spend in college, the rate of annual cost increase, and the current cost of attending a specific school. If you want to use averages, this calculator provides those, as well:

Annual tuition and fees:

  • Public 2-year college: $3,660
  • Public 4-year in state college: $10,230
  • Public 4-year out-of-state college: $26,290
  • Private average-cost 4-year college: $35,830
  • Private expensive 4-year college: $45,155

Annual tuition and fees including room and board:

  • Public 2-year college: $12,320
  • Public 4-year in state college: $21,370
  • Public 4-year out-of-state college: $37,430
  • Private average-cost 4-year college: $48,510
  • Private expensive 4-year college: $60,205

Financial aid

Each year, the federal government gives financial aid to thousands of students. The first step to learning how much college aid you qualify for is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can do this as early as your senior year in high school. You’ll need to fill out a new FAFSA for every year you attend college. Even if you think your family’s income is too high to qualify, go through the process of filling out the application anyway. The income limits for need-based aid are quite high.

Here are the types of need-based aid available1:

Pell Grants; maximum of $5,920 per year

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG); maximum of $4,000 per year

To estimate the cost of attending college, you’ll need to consider many factors. Here are a few decisions that will directly affect how much it costs you to extend your education beyond high school:

Private universities

Smaller private colleges offer many advantages. A better teacher-to-student ratio, an easier-to-navigate campus, and a close-knit community are just a few of the reasons you may choose to attend a private school.

53% of students who attend private colleges earn a degree on the timeline they planned out during freshman year. For some people, the likelihood that they can succeed in a smaller school justifies the additional cost.

It’s not always more expensive to attend a private college. While the tuition fees may be significantly higher, it’s likely that you’ll have access to scholarships specific to that school. For example, at Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California, 93% of the students receive financial aid. The tuition is about $29,000 per year, but the average net price after scholarships and financial aid is just $4,900. The average class size is 12 students, and they have an 89% graduation rate.2

Public universities

If you attend a public college where you live, you could get a hefty discount on tuition. The school receives partial funding from state taxes, so if you decide to go to a public college in a different state, you won’t get the discount. Public schools also offer state-funded scholarships and grants, further decreasing the cost of tuition and fees.

The University of Florida offers one of the best values for in-state tuition. 96% of their students receive some type of financial aid. Over half of graduates leave the school debt-free.3

At the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, in-state tuition is about $6,500 per year. 83% of the students here receive financial aid, and their graduation rate is 68%.3

Not all public universities offer a wallet-friendly tuition program, though. At the University of Virginia, students from out of state pay about $44,000 per year for tuition and fees. At the University of Pittsburg, in-state tuition is about $18,000 per year.4

Two-year colleges

Community, city, and technical colleges are an affordable option with programs that often lead to employment in lucrative careers. Instead of spending money on general education courses at a four-year college, many students choose to take those courses at a community college then transfer to a four-year school.

For students that want or need to work for more than a few hours each week to support themselves, a community college or technical school may be the right choice. They often offer more flexible scheduling options like online classes and night classes.

There are a few notoriously lucrative careers that you need a 2-year degree to qualify for. Technical jobs and careers in the trades are experiencing a shortage of workers right now, as well.

For example, a Radialogic & MRI Technologist makes about $60,000 per year. Educational training includes a 2-year associates degree. Depending on the state requirements, you may also need to past licensing or certification tests.5

There’s nationwide shortage of dental technicians, and their median salary in the U.S. is $72,000. The field is expected to grow by 20% before 2026.5

An avionics technician is responsible for the maintenance and repair of airplanes. They make about $60,000 per year and expected job growth is 5%. HVAC installers have a great chance of getting a good job. They make about $45,000 per year and the industry expects 15% job growth.5

If you want to go into medicine, your best bet at a 2-year college is the program for Radiologic and MRI techs, Nuclear Medicine Techs, Dental Hygienists, and Medical Sonographer.

For those who enjoy working with computers, a career as a computer network specialist or web developer is also a great option.5

Choosing a major

Minimizing the cost of attending college is one factor that will affect your future financial situation. Remember that choosing a major will have the biggest effect on whether you can pay back any loans or credit card balances after you graduate. Some educational programs simply pay off better than others.

For students that aren’t sure about which career path they’d like to pursue, it can be tempting to get on track for a liberal arts degree. Unemployment rates among college graduates are highest at 5.6% in this area of study, however. By contrast, unemployment rates among students graduating with a nursing degree are 1.1%.5

Of course, choose a major that aligns with your areas of strength and interests. Also, research your options so you can make a plan to graduate with a degree that will lead to employment in your chosen field.

Undergrad housing options

For recent high school graduates, a big part of how much it costs to attend college is related to where you decide to live.

Student housing

Living in dorms or on campus in student housing can easily double the cost of college. At some schools, freshman students are required to live on campus. Make sure living off campus is an option if this is your first year of college before you go to the trouble of looking at off-campus housing.

For a dorm on campus, students should expect to pay $8,000-$10,000 per year on average for housing and meals. The meal plan is included in these prices but may make up as much as half of your room and board costs.6

Off-campus (on your own)

The cost of renting an apartment or house varies widely. It depends on the cost of living in the city where you’ll attend college and whether you’ll have roommates to help share costs. In general, college towns have more expensive housing.

Before you commit to a lease, make sure the landlord has a good reputation. Check online reviews of the building or company that manages the property. Talk with neighbors to find out whether the property manager takes care of their needs in a timely manner.

Greek housing

The amount of money it costs to live, eat, and pay dues in Greek housing and become part of a fraternity or sorority varies widely. As an example, at the University of North Carolina, the average cost of belonging to and living in as fraternity or sorority house are as follows:

  • Yearly dues for new members: $575-$2,500
  • Housing: $2,560-$4,900 per semester
  • Meal plan: $1,250-$2,050 per semester7

Don’t forget to factor in a significant amount of money for social expenses. You may have to buy certain clothing items, dress up for events, donate money to charity, buy gifts for other members, or pay for professional photos.

Living at home with parents

It doesn’t sound like a typical freshman-year scenario but living at home with your parents while you complete your first year or two of college can be a real money-saving move.

Be sure to work out the details with them of course. Make sure you have a plan for sticking to your work and school schedule. Find out their expectations where sharing costs is concerned.

Other expenses

Some college-related expenses offer a chance to save money if you plan carefully. If you have leftover financial aid and scholarship money, you can reduce the amount of money you’ll need to get from a part-time job or from your parents. Many college students find that it’s easier to save money than to make extra cash at a low-paying part-time job.

As soon as you get your student ID and student email ending in .edu, sign up at UNiDAYS for instant access to discounts on everything from contact lenses to your next shopping trip at the mall to Uber rides.

Here’s some of the discounts available through UNiDAYS:

  • Up to $300 off an Apple computer
  • 20% off at American Eagle
  • 33% off an Audible subscription
  • $20 cash card with membership at Costco
  • $5 off at Publix Super Markets
  • $15 off when you sign up with Uber

Books and supplies

If you are willing to buy used books, you can save about 30%. You may be able to rent your textbooks through an online service. Check out these options:






If you decide to purchase textbooks, be sure to sell them back to the bookstore or sell them online to get some of your money back.

Cell phone

It’s easy to get a cheap cell phone plan, but because it will be your communication hub, it’s important to make sure you get good coverage and service. This is especially crucial if you will attend college far from home. The cell phone service that worked well in your home town may not be so great while you are away at college.

When you find a cell phone provider that offers good coverage, ask them about available student discounts and promotions. AT&T offers lower rates for college students when they sign up with their student email address. The Sprint Works Program is another discount options for students.

Expect to spend $50-$100 per month on cell service. You may want to consider upgrading to a newer phone if yours lacks sufficient memory or if the battery is not as strong as it once was.


Fortunately, as a college student, you’ll get discounts on many local entertainment options when you show your student ID. Take advantage of these opportunities but set a budget for entertainment and stick to it.

If you consider eating out or going to get coffee a form of entertainment, be sure to check out the discounts you can get with your student ID. Here are a few national chains that give students a break:

  • Subway: 10% off
  • Waffle House: 10% off
  • TCBY: 15% off
  • Dunkin Donuts: 10% off
  • Chik-fil-A: promotions vary by location
  • Burger King: 10% off
  • McDonalds: 10% off promotions vary by location
  • Chipotle: promotions vary by location
  • Buffalo Wild Wings: 10% off
  • Qdoba: promotions vary by location
  • Hard Rock Café: promotions vary by location

Here are some other places you can get a discount by showing your student ID:

  • AMC Theaters: promotions vary by location
  • Cinemark: watch for “college ID night” discounts
  • Museums: many offer free entry with student ID
  • MLB and NHL offer student discounts in certain towns


Figure out how much money you’ll spend on traveling to and from class and your job. If you have a car, you’ll probably need to buy a parking pass. To minimize expensive tickets, fines, and tow bills, make sure you understand where you can legally park. Some schools have special rules about on-campus parking during sporting events and during holiday breaks.

There’s a lot that goes into estimating the cost of college. Researching the numbers as they apply to your situation is necessary if you want to get through your college years with a budget that works.

  1. FAFSA Income Limits, Types of Aid, and More | Student Loan Hero. Student Loan Hero. https://studentloanhero.com/featured/fafsa-income-limits-financial-aid-2018/. Published 2019. Accessed March 10, 2019.
  2. Most Affordable Small Private Colleges for 2018. AffordableColleges.com. https://www.affordablecolleges.com/rankings/small-private-colleges/. Published 2019. Accessed March 10, 2019.
  3. 50 Affordable Public Universities for In-State Students. AffordableColleges.com. https://www.affordablecolleges.com/rankings/public-schools-for-in-state-students/. Published 2019. Accessed March 10, 2019.
  4. Public vs. Private College: Which Should You Attend? | Student Loan Hero. Student Loan Hero. https://studentloanhero.com/featured/public-vs-private-college-attend-which/. Published 2019. Accessed March 10, 2019.
  5. 20 Highest Paying Associate Degree Jobs in 2018 | GetEducated. Geteducated.com. https://www.geteducated.com/careers/highest-paying-associate-degree-jobs. Published 2019. Accessed March 10, 2019.
  6. Robert C. How Much Does College Really Cost?. My College Guide. https://mycollegeguide.org/articles/paying-for-college/how-much-does-college-really-cost. Published 2019. Accessed March 10, 2019.
  7. Should You Join A Sorority Or Fraternity?. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0812/should-you-join-a-sorority-or-fraternity.aspx. Published 2019. Accessed March 10, 2019.

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