How Much Will a U.S. College Cost?

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How much money will you need to make your dream of attending a U.S. college come true? The answer depends on several factors. Where will you go to school? Do you prefer to begin your education at a community college or a four-year school? Are you interested in attending an elite private university? Will you qualify for scholarships or other financial assistance?

Many students in Africa dream of attending a U.S. college.  Too often, when they find out how expensive it can be, they abandon their dream. Don’t be discouraged! It’s true that students from wealthy families may spend a lot of money earning a degree in the U.S. But, it’s also possible to get a quality education for a lot less. Be sure to check out “Paying for Your U.S. Education” for ideas on how to finance for your U.S. college education.

Remember that the costs we’re going to discuss are averages. The U.S. college that you attend may charge more or less – sometimes much less. For example, the average cost of tuition at a U.S. community college is $2,191. This means that for every school that charges $500 more per year ($2,691), there is one where the tuition is $500 less per year, or $1,591 per year.

Also, keep in mind that there are a number of ways to reduce the cost of your U.S. education. At many four-year schools, for example, you may qualify as an RA or Resident Assistant after the first year. RAs provide supervision for other students in the dorm. In return for a few hours of work during the week, RAs receive their living expenses, including room and meals, free. Depending upon the school, they may also receive a small monthly stipend for spending money.

Many African students will qualify for full or partial scholarships to pay for tuition and books. Scholarships are available for students who excel in a number of areas, from athletics to academics. Special scholarships are often given to students from a particular country, or in a particular field of study, such as teaching or physics. Whatever your talent, from horseback riding to modern dance, from painting to storytelling, there is a scholarship for it.

Many international students are confused about the difference between a college and a university. In the U.S., college and university mean the same thing. They both provide a similar high-quality education. This is not true in Canada and the UK, where a college usually provides a shorter course of professional education, perhaps for bookkeepers or secretaries. In the U.S., this would be called a trade or vocational school.  In Canada and the UK, the brightest students earn academic degrees at university or “uni.” In the U.S., both colleges and universities offer similar courses for bright students.  Technically, a  U.S. college is a smaller school or a division of a large university. In practice, a U.S. student is much more likely to refer to his or her “college” or “school” rather than “university.”

Studying in the U.S. can be expensive, but it’s an investment that pays off. First, let’s look at some average figures compiled from the U.S. State Department for full-time students. The total cost of your college education will depend on the type of school you choose. The average tuition at a public community college in 2006 was $2,191 per year for a full-time student. For a public four-year college, the average cost was $5,491. And for a four-year private college or university, the average cost is $21,235. And that’s just for tuition alone.

I know you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s a huge difference!” According to these figures, the average four-year private school costs almost ten times as much as the average community college. The quality of education that you receive isn’t necessarily better at a more expensive school. Why? And, more important, which one is right for you?

Here are the average costs when living expenses and meals are included. These numbers also include transportation to and from your classes, and a modest amount of spending money.

The total cost of a year at a U.S. college also depends on where you live, while you’re attending school. The cheapest option is still the public community college. Most community colleges don’t have dorms, so students live nearby in an apartment or private home.

Many U.S. students attend community college while living at home with their parents. Other students rent a room from a local family, or share a house or apartment with other students. The total cost of studies and living expenses at community colleges for students who commute between home and school each day is $11,692 per year.

Most students and parents are surprised to learn that at a four-year school, living in a dorm room on campus can be the cheapest option. Dorm life is also less complicated for international students. Meals are usually provided, and there are nearby facilities for laundry. Students don’t have to worry about negotiating a lease or grocery shopping. In most cases, living on campus means the student doesn’t need a car. For four-year public colleges, the average cost of tuition plus living expenses is $23,239 per year. For four-year private colleges, the average cost is $31,916.

If you choose to live off-campus, your living expenses will be slightly higher in many areas. You may need a car to go back and forth to classes. Even in an area where public transportation is available, it’s an additional expense. The average budget for a commuter student at a four-year private college is $32,070.