Understanding tuition and fees at US universities can be challenging, especially because fees vary by university and specific degree programs.
If you’re wondering how much college costs in the US, read on to find out the costs and fees you need to know about, including tuition fees at US universities, the average college tuition in the US, which types of fees may impact your bill, and more.
How Much Does It Cost to Study In the US?
Studying in the US is expensive. It can cost around $32,000-$60,000 USD per year, with prices varying by degree program, type of university, and location, among other factors.
The tuition cost of your program will usually be the largest factor in what you pay to study in the US. Tuition cost can vary greatly between different universities, for example, the price of earning a computer science degree at one university may be much more expensive than the same degree at a different university.
Why does college tuition vary? Remember, no two universities are exactly alike, and college administrators consider program content, facilities, faculty and staff, guest lecturers, events, and other activities when determining their final pricing each year.
Housing is usually the second highest portion of your cost to study in the US. Many universities require international students to live on campus in their first year. While on-campus advantages include no commute time, easy navigation, and convenient access to everything you need, student housing can also be very costly, depending on the university. To save money, some students opt to live off campus after completing their first year of study. Off-campus options can include nearby apartments and/or shared group housing, depending on your preferences and budget.
Whether you plan to live on campus or off, dining is another large cost. While on-campus dining options often feature comprehensive meal plans, if you plan to live off campus, you need to budget your finances for groceries.
Additionally, there are other regular expenses to consider, such as fuel if you plan to have a car, transit costs if you want to use public transportation, and health insurance.
Tuition Fees for Different Types of Universities
The university where you enroll will determine your final tuition fees. Public and private universities, two-year colleges, and four-year colleges will all have different tuition fee structures.
For example, public universities receive funding from the government, while private universities receive funding from donations, foundations, and other private sources. Tuition fees at private US universities tend to be higher than public universities, as tuition makes up a large part of their funding. Public universities may be required to accepted a certain percentage of local students, and students who live in that same state often have lower tuition fees compared to students from another state or country.
The duration of your preferred university’s degree program also affects the tuition fee you will pay. Some public and private colleges offer a two-year associate's degree with general education classes — these are known as two-year colleges, community colleges, or technical colleges. Because of their shorter duration, associate’s degree programs can be affordable options, enabling students to enter the workforce sooner or transfer to continue their studies for a bachelor’s degree (having paid a lower cost for their first two years).
Four-year colleges mainly offer bachelor’s degree programs, which usually take four years to complete and cost more than two-year colleges. The cost of a bachelor’s degree program varies by school and its specific courses, activities, facilities, resources, and unique offerings such as placement programs.
What Is the Average College Tuition?
In 2021, the average college tuition cost at a public university is $10,388 USD and $38,185 USD at a private college. For out-of-state students (including international students), the average cost is $22,698 USD (U.S. News & World Report).
When choosing a college, remember not to rule out universities with higher tuition fees! Some universities charge a high tuition fee while also providing a wide range of need- and/or merit-based grants and scholarships to offset the cost of studying in the USA.
Additionally, remember to research exactly what is included in your university tuition and fees. Some schools with a high tuition cost feature unique benefits, such as career placement opportunities, career fairs, or advanced facilities where you can conduct research. They may also offer public transportation services for students and even discounts at local eateries or shopping centers.
These additional benefits and services can make high tuition fees at US universities worthwhile as they reduce the cost of other expenses. Together, this may reduce your overall cost of studying at a US university.
What’s the Cost for an International Student Studying at a US University?
The exact cost to study at a US university depends on the university where you hope to enroll, and this cost changes further depending on city, state, and degree program.
In addition to your tuition fee at US universities, it is important to choose the right housing option that meets your personal needs and budget. While housing costs vary, US universities and colleges charge between $5,000-$8,000 USD per year on average for on-campus residences. If you want to live off campus after completing your first year, the average rent for a single-bedroom apartment is usually between $6,000-$15,000 USD per year, depending on the state, neighborhood, square footage, and amenities. Keep in mind that you need to also pay electricity, internet, and water bills along with your rent.
If you are younger than 25, expect to pay between $30-$140 per month for US health insurance, with rates varying by your university’s specific health plans and their related coverage.
Transportation and living expenses are another important cost to plan out. Transport costs in the US can be affordable, with bus and train passes costing $150 USD or less per month. For living expenses (entertainment, travel, grooming, etc.), you might pay approximately $10,000-$12,000 per year, depending on your lifestyle.
What Are the Differences Between Tuition and Fees?
Tuition fees at US universities usually refer to the cost of your degree program at the institution, covering classes, instruction/faculty salaries, and research facilities. A fee covers other non-course services offered at the university, such as shuttle service, academic counseling, groundskeeping, and the like. Tuition is a type of fee, and there are many other fees which contribute toward your total cost of studying in the US. Most university fees are mandatory in order to enroll in your program.
What Are the Different Types of US University Fees?
University fee types will vary, depending on the university and degree program. For example, a student pursuing a major in engineering will be expected to pay laboratory fees, but English majors would not see this charge on their bill.
While fee structures and costs may not be identical across majors, there are mandatory fees that typically apply to all students. Here are the common fees you can expect at your US university or college:
Orientation fees: These are fees for your orientation program and are usually only charged during registration for first-time students in the US.
Campus fees: Campus fees are a broad term for fees covering campus upkeep, such as maintenance or access to certain buildings and programs. As a general term, each university might have their own name for this type of fee if they charge it.
Dining fees: Dining fees differ based on the meal plan you choose. There are on-campus dining options, off-campus dining options, and even add-on options that allow you to customize your meal plan. For example, at Auburn University, add-on options allow students to add 25 block meals (a block meal grants access to a buffet-style dining location) to their dining plan.
Housing fees: Housing fees are applicable to on-campus options, like dormitories and residence halls, and off-campus options such as subsidized apartments. When you are looking at housing fees, find out whether they include additional services, like utilities, or just cover housing only.
Health Insurance fees: Health insurance plans are mandatory for international students. Depending on your health care needs, different types of health insurance plans are available at varying costs. Whether you opt for full coverage or a “just the basics” plan, you can expect to see charges for health insurance on your university bill. (For more information, read our blog post about health insurance in the US.)
Technology fees: Technology fees are charged for services and resources such as computer labs, student portals, WiFi, online registrations for classes and events, computer security, and faculty research.
What About Student Visa Fees?
After you are accepted at the university you plan to attend, you need to apply for a student visa. During the application process for your visa, there are two costs you need to pay:
Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS) fee — $350 USD
DS-160 visa application fee — $160 USD
With so many fees to keep in mind, it can be challenging to remember everything you need to pay. This is where budgeting for your college fees allows you to financially prepare for studying in the US and make sure no payment is missed.
How Much Should I Budget for College Fees?
Typically, the total cost for your college or university will include the fees mentioned above and tuition fees.
Here are sample budgets covering fees for two semesters in undergraduate programs from Shorelight universities:
Other Fees (Facility, Insurance, More)
University of Illinois Chicago
Other Fees (Facility, Insurance, More)
University of Utah
Other Fees (Facility, Insurance, More)
*Fees are based on current estimates and are subject to change.
The best way to find accurate and up-to-date information about college fees is to contact an enrollment advisor from your preferred university. Additionally, most US universities feature a fee and financial aid calculator on their websites, which you can use to get an approximate understanding of the total cost of the program where you want to study.
If you need support with preparing your budget, reach out to a Shorelight advisor! Your advisor can help you research the cost of college in the US and evaluate your options. They can also provide application assistance, support you with selecting a major and choosing between a college vs a university, explain student visa fees, and more.
What Are the Cheapest Universities In the US?
Usually, the most affordable universities in the US are public universities, as they often have lower tuition fees compared to private universities. If you are an undergraduate student, the cheapest option would be a public community college, as this gives you the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree at a lower cost compared to a private or public university. Some community colleges also have transfer programs which allow you to transfer to a four-year university after completing your degree.
If you want to pursue a specialized program at a private university, consider looking at options that provide a significant tuition discount through scholarships or grants. While these are usually still more expensive compared to public universities, a tuition fee reduction can make them easier to manage financially while giving you access to unique opportunities.
Are There Tuition-Free Colleges In the US?
There are a select few institutions in the US that are tuition-free; these have certain conditions for entry and usually only apply to in-state students. For example, the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado offers zero tuition fees for students who agree to enlist as a cadet after graduation. Some colleges and universities may also offer zero tuition with the condition that you work a specific number of hours at on-campus jobs.
The other option for tuition-free colleges in the US are institutions with scholarships and grants that cover this fee. These scholarships usually require you to maintain a specified grade point average (GPA) in your program or may be based on your personal circumstances and/or financial need.
Now that you understand how fees work and how to plan for them, you can stick to a budget and be prepared for all the costs included in your US university bill.
However, do not worry if you are feeling overwhelmed: With your Shorelight advisor, you can learn which fees apply to you and how to make payment plans to cover them. When you know what to expect with your bill and which fees will impact your studies, you can make an informed plan to pay for university in the US and get one step closer to earning your degree.
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