College Tuition 101: Everything You Need to Know About The Cost of College

November 15, 2019

Your major, learning environment, class size, distance from home, sports teams, and a decent pizza joint. So much goes into selecting a place to further your education. But probably nothing resonates (and creates more sweat beads) than the total cost of college. 

One just has to scan the news to know that college costs are at an all-time high, and a paper by CBPP (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) shows that the US has hit rock-bottom in state funding of public universities and colleges. So that, in turn, means these public institutions have to charge more for tuition. It’s simple math, and simply frustrating to face these days. 

In fact, given their reliance on state funding, public colleges and universities have seen a greater increase in their tuition price as compared to private institutions during the last two decades. As the price of both public and private institutions have increased, more and more students are making their choice based on the total cost of attendance. 

But determining what that ‘total cost’ means is critical to making an informed decision about your next phase of learning. So let’s look a little deeper. 

Some background from HSBC’s ‘The Value of Education”, a recent survey of US parents and students:

  • Total spending to complete a degree averages almost $100k
  • 85% of all students work while attending college
  • On average, about 62% of parents reduce their leisure activities to support their child’s education 

What is the Cost of Attendance vs. Net Price?

The Cost of Attendance or COA is pretty straightforward – it is the total direct and indirect costs to attend college for a year. The COA includes tuition and fees, room and board (on-campus or off-campus), a book and supplies allowance, transportation expenses, loan fees, and miscellaneous personal expenses. The COA often also includes the cost of a personal computer, study-abroad programs, care for dependents, and even disability-related costs. In short, almost any cost related to your attendance.

Net Price as defined by The U.S. Department of Education is: “An estimate of the actual cost that a student and his family need to pay in a given year to cover education expenses for the student to attend a particular school. Net price is determined by taking the institution’s cost of attendance and subtracting any grants and scholarships for which the student may be eligible.” So, the net price is what you actually pay to attend college for a year.

Example: A full-time student at William Peace University ‘pays’ $31,200 per year. But over 90% of our students receive financial assistance, significantly shrinking their net price — up to $16,000 less, in some cases.

What Is an Enrollment Deposit for College?

It’s a down payment on tuition and holds a space for you in the upcoming semester. Also called an ‘enrollment fee,’ this tuition deposit is due by May 1st (but it’s easy to remember since it’s helpfully called ‘The National College Enrollment Deposit Day’).

What Are Tuition Calculators? How do I Use One?

As the name implies, a tuition calculator figures your total costs per year – including tuition, fees, room & board – after subtracting any financial aid or scholarships, so you and your family can get a crystal-clear image of your payment obligations for your particular school. A tuition calculator is a great tool to assist with determining what your estimated out of pocket cost will be. You can use this number to work with a bank or lender to assist with a private loan or the school with a payment plan.

Find your chosen school’s calculator here: College Scorecard Courtesy of the USDE (United States Department of Education)

Is Private College Tuition Higher Than Public College Tuition?

Ordinarily, but not always. Private colleges often offer generous scholarship packages, reducing your costs to attend. Public schools don’t do this as often, so you may end up paying close to the full tuition rate. 

Also factor in everything an institution has to offer you – quality courses, apprenticeships, cooperation with other universities, employment opportunities, and so on. When these elements are added in, attending a private university can turn out to be less costly than a public one.

So it’s all in how you look at it:

The average annual private college tuition is about $37,000. The most expensive institutions – including Vassar, Harvey Mudd College, University of Chicago, and Columbia University – average close to $55,000 per year. 

Yet their ranking based on value is still high because their financial aid programs are extensive. Harvard University is a good example of this, with 55% of first-year students receiving need-based financial aid. 


Tuition discounts from private schools have risen to a record high at almost 50%* NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers)  

Which Colleges Cost the Least?

The cost of attending a public college varies from campus to campus across the United States. But your average for a four-year institution is $10,000 annually. Wyoming and Florida offer the lowest average cost (according to the College Board).

The top three most affordable colleges in the US are:

  • California State University, Los Angeles
  • Dominguez Hills, a branch of the California State University, Carson
  • University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley 

Tuition-free colleges do exist, but you’ll usually be expected to work or wear a uniform. The U.S. Naval or Military Academies, Air Force, Coast Guard, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy fall into this category. 

The Quality-to-Price Ratio

Your college education is an investment, one of the biggest and most important of your life. So it’s essential to consider each and every factor when making this decision. 


  • Check the employment rates after graduation. All else equal, you’ll want to attend a college with a high job-placement rate. Smoothing your path to a great job and starting a rewarding career are some of the core reasons for attending college. 


WPU provides extensive career services for students and we work with many prospective employers to help our students to launch their careers as soon as possible. We are proud to report that 98% of our recent graduates have either gained employment or continued their education. 

  • Determine if the courses offered will benefit your future career. To gauge if the cost of college is indeed worth it, it’s wise to look closely into the courses offered, as well as what kind of internship you may be eligible for. Affordable courses aren’t worth much unless they contribute to your education or employment prospects.


  • Compare in-state/out-of-state student costs. For public colleges, tuition varies substantially depending on whether you are an in-state or out-of-state resident. Out-of-state students typically pay more than twice as much as in-state students. 


  • Look for any additional fees. Those fees again! Lab fees, parking fees, technology, and computer-use fees…They vary from college to college but know they’re there and you’ll have to pay them beyond your tuition and room & board. 

Give Us a Call.

We called this blog ‘101’ because one can go much deeper as you hone in on a preferred place of higher education. If that’s you, feel free to contact our financial aid team – they’re more than happy to help you find a solid financial package and show you why WPU might be ideal for you.  

And be sure to check out our costs, scholarships, and financial aid page and our WPU Net Price Calculator