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Here's the Average Cost of a Private College Today

By Maurie Backman – Updated Feb 3, 2020 at 5:13PM

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Be prepared to gasp just a little.

When it comes to attending college, you have choices. You can go to an in-state public college, an out-of-state public college, or a private college. The latter, on average, is your priciest four-year option of the three. And that's why it pays to consider what you'll get out of attending a private college carefully before signing up to pay that tuition. 

A female college student studying in the library.

Image source: Getty Images

What private college costs today

The College Board reports that the average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year private college is $36,880 for the 2019-2020 academic year. That represents a 3.4% climb from the previous academic year.

It also doesn't tell the whole story. 

When you add in the average cost of annual room and board, which is $12,990, you get a total of $49,870 a year to attend private college. Over the course of four years, that's roughly a $200,000 investment. 

But while $36,880 may represent the average price tag for tuition and fees for private college, there are plenty of private schools that charge a lot more. Take Cornell University as one example. Annual tuition alone, at present, costs $56,550. On the other hand, annual tuition at Brigham Young University ranges from just $5,790 to $11,580, which is well below the average price for private colleges.

Is private college worth the cost?

In some cases, it could pay to attend private college, even if it means taking out more student loans to swing tuition. If you're set on a specific career path, and a private university has a specialized program that caters to that field, then the premium to attend could be worth it. 

Similarly, attending a well-known college could better position you for a job in certain elite fields. For example, some top financial firms make a point to only recruit from Ivy League schools. If you're intent on breaking into investment banking, it could make sense to pay up for one of them (and in that particular field, the salaries are so high that you're more likely than not to recoup your investment).

On the other hand, if you don't have a specific career path or major in mind, then a private college may not be worth the cost if there's a cheaper alternative. Even if you are set on your major, if it's something offered universally, attending a more expensive school may not make sense. For example, you can major in English or history just about anywhere, so why pay roughly $37,000 a year for a liberal arts degree when you can pay a fraction of that at a public college?

That said, before you write off the idea of private college, try applying to the schools that top your list and see if they offer you a break. Private colleges often have access to grant money that they can award on a need or merit basis. And if you score a $20,000 grant at a school whose annual tuition hovers around $37,000, you'll wind up only paying $17,000 -- "only" being a relative term. At that point, you're much closer to the cost of a public in-state college, which averages $10,440 for annual tuition and fees, and you're actually below the average yearly cost of a public out-of-state college, which is $26,820. 

Ultimately, there are benefits and drawbacks to choosing a private college. Either way, be sure to have a full grasp of your costs before accepting a spot at one, and know that generally speaking, you stand to save money on college by sticking with public schools. 


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