How To Compare College Costs

One of the more difficult aspects of picking a college to attend is accurately comparing how much each school is going to cost you.

Note the emphasis on you.

Finding tuition prices isn’t difficult – every school publishes that information, and other miscellaneous costs, on their website. But there’s so much more to the price of college than just the tuition bill.

So how do you compare the cost of each college you’re considering? There are three pieces to the puzzle:

1. Find Each School’s Cost of Attendance

The first step in the process is to calculate each school’s Cost of Attendance. Here’s what’s included in the cost of attendance:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Books and supplies
  • Transportation

It’s important to remember your school’s cost of attendance might not be accurately reflected in your financial aid award letter. Some schools will omit essentials to make their financial aid offers appear more competitive than they truly are.

Double-check with each school’s financial aid office to confirm all components have been included in their cost of attendance calculations.

In addition, many schools will supply different costs of attendance for different circumstances, such as one for in-state students and another for those attending from out of state. Make sure you’re looking at the right one.

2. Review Your Financial Aid Packages

Once you’ve determined each school’s cost of attendance, it’s time to compare financial aid offers. But you’re not going to compare the full aid offer, first, you’re going to evaluate the “free money”.

Free money, or gift aid, is the amount you receive in grants and scholarships – any financial aid that you don’t have to pay back.

Add up all the gift aid you’re being offered, and subtract that number from the school’s Cost of Attendance. The resulting total will leave your out of pocket costs for reach school.

Once you’ve isolated the net price, you can get a better feel for how much each school is going to cost you.

From there, ask yourself if the school’s loan offers are substantial enough for you to be able to afford tuition. If not, do you have the ability to pay the rest out of pocket, or will you need to take on a part-time job?

3. Factor in Each City’s Cost of Living

There’s still one last variable you have to consider when comparing college costs: the city’s cost of living.

From off-campus housing to groceries to entertainment, the cost of everything changes from city to city, so it’s important to factor this information into your calculations.

The internet has provided many great tools to help you compare the cost of an apartment or the price of milk from one city to another. Nerdwallet and Bankrate have created two of our favorites, but a quick search of the “cost of living calculator” will provide you with a plethora of options.

Of course, when it comes to bigger expenses, especially housing, it’s vital to do a reality check. Go on rental websites like Trulia and make sure there really are available listings at a price point you’re comfortable with.


These steps should help you get a better feel for the true costs of the colleges you’re considering. If you’re just beginning the application process, our college search tool will help you narrow down your options.

While you don’t want to put your finances in jeopardy – either now or in the future – it’s worth remembering that college is meant to be an investment. What you learn and experience during college will shape who you are as you move into adulthood and the real world.

Wherever you end up, soak up everything your school has to offer. You’ll thank yourself later for doing so!