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

Average costs for tuition, room, and board

Graduates at graduation ceremony (focus on young man in glasses)

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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 the research still shows, in most cases, going to college pays off in the long run.

Key Takeaways

  • The average cost of tuition alone at a four-year public college was $10,740 in the 2021-22 school year.
  • Despite the high cost of college, in most cases, a college degree pays off financially.
  • People with four-year degrees earn a median weekly salary of $1,334, whereas employees with a high school degree earn a median $809.
  • Lifetime earnings for a high school graduate are $1.6 million lower than for a college grad.
  • While college grads tend to earn more than others, a degree is not a guarantee of higher earnings. Other factors also play a role.

Average Cost of Tuition

Typical costs vary widely by 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 2021-2022 school year was $38,070 at private colleges, $10,740 for state residents at public colleges, and $27,560 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

These numbers do not include housing, meals, textbooks, 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 $1.6 trillion in 2022.

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 $3,800 $10,740 $27,560 $38,070
Room and Board $9,330 $11,950 $11,950 $13,620
Total $13,130 $22,690 $39,510 $51,690
Source: College Board, "Trends in College Pricing: Highlights"

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 individuals 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 $1,334, whereas employees with a high school degree earn a median $809. The difference is even higher when comparing employees with doctoral degrees to those with some or no college degree.

Median Salary and Unemployment by Degree Level
Degree Level Average Weekly Salary Unemployment Rate
Less than high school $626 8.3%
High school diploma $809 6.2%
Some college, no degree $899 5.5%
Associate's degree $963 4.6%
Bachelor's degree $1,334 3.5%
Master's degree $1,574 2.6%
Professional degree $1,924 1.8%
Doctoral degree $1,909 1.5%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (Current as of Oct. 3, 2022)

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 salaries, it's no surprise that these numbers can add up to significant differences in the long run. In fact, completing high school but not going to college could cost you dearly—to the tune of $1.6 million in lifetime wages, according to a 2021 Georgetown University study.

Lifetime Earnings by Education Level
Degree Level Median Lifetime Earnings 
Less than high school  $1.2 million
High school diploma $1.6 million
Some college $1.9 million 
Associate's degree  $2 million
Bachelor's degree $2.8 million
Master's degree $3.2 million
Doctoral degree $4 million
Professional degree $4.7 million
Source: Georgetown University. "The College Payoff."

More education doesn't guarantee more pay. A lot depends on other factors such as your field, location, and the organizations you end up working for. About 16% of high school grads earn more than half of workers with a bachelor's degree, for instance. But generally, a college degree pays.


Men earn more than women at every level of education, but men's and women's earnings still overlap a lot.

How Your College Major Affects Earnings

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 $1.8 million in lifetime earnings between the highest- and lowest-earning majors. The top-paying majors unsurprisingly include architecture and engineering; computers, statistics, and math; and business. The majors with the lowest median earnings are in education, psychology and social work, and the arts.

Median Lifetime Earnings By Undergraduate Major
Degree Median Lifetime Earnings
Architecture and Engineering $3.8 million
Computers, Statistics, and Mathematics $3.6 million
Business $3 million
Physical Sciences $2.9 million
Health $2.9 million
Social Sciences $2.8 million
Biology and Life Sciences $2.8 million
Communications and Journalism $2.7 million
Agriculture and Natural Resources $2.6 million
Law and Public Policy $2.6 million
Industrial Arts, Consumer Services, Recreation $2.5 million
Humanities and Liberal Arts $2.4 million
Arts $2.3 million
Psychology and Social Work $2.2 million
Education $2 million
Source: Georgetown University. "The College Payoff."

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.

In the current digital economy, the future of work is changing fast and one thing that emerges is that despite specialties and core areas of learning, some fields are fusing. A competitive candidate is one who is curious to learn, and that may mean intersecting technology with finance, business with social studies, and math with psychology. A lot of success happens in these intersections.

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. Compare the costs of college vs. work after high school, too, before making any decisions. If you are concerned about saving for college, check with a financial advisor to discuss a college savings strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why is college so expensive?

There are a few reasons why college is so expensive: lower state funding, more campus perks to attract students, and the widespread availability of student lending, which gives colleges less incentive to keep prices down.

What are the main expenses for college?

The biggest college expenses are tuition, housing, food, and books and supplies. Transportation may also be a major expense, depending on how you commute to campus and whether you spend a lot to travel to see family on weekends and breaks.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. College Board. "Trends in College Pricing: Highlights."

  2. Federal Student Aid. "Federal Student Loan Portfolio," Download "Federal Student Aid Portfolio Summary."

  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Unemployment Rates and Earnings by Educational Attainment."

  4. Georgetown University. "The College Payoff," Pages 2-3.

  5. Georgetown University. "The College Payoff," Page 6.

  6. Georgetown University. "The College Payoff," Pages 10-11.

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