College costs can feel overwhelming, but planning ahead can ease the burden of college tuition and help students pay for school. Today, more than 50% of families have a plan to pay for college. However, only 37% of families use a college savings account, meaning students may miss out on thousands when it comes to saving for college. Whether you’re just starting your college journey, returning to college after a break, or saving for your children to attend college, these college cost calculators will help you budget for college.
Our calculator estimates the amount of money you can afford to spend monthly or annually on college tuition. Simply enter your financial information, including your monthly or yearly income, cost of living, and loan payments. Our calculator also considers any scholarship aid you receive and the cost of equipment and supplies. Once you fill out the boxes, we will give you an estimated annual tuition amount, as well as a monthly payment.
Tution and More: Calculating the True Cost of College
Colleges list tuition per credit or per semester on their websites. But college tuition is not the only factor in calculating the cost of college. Fees and living expenses can equal or exceed tuition costs. When determining the true cost of attending college, students need to factor in expenses like textbooks, housing, and transportation. This section walks through the cost of higher education to help students figure out how much their degree will cost.
College students pay tuition to enroll in classes. At most schools, students pay a flat rate per term; part-time students may pay per credit. Undergrads generally have to pay their tuition upfront at the beginning of the semester.
Tuition costs can add up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2018, in-state students at public schools spent over $9,000 per year in tuition and fees, while private colleges charged nearly $32,000 per year in tuition and fees.
Some schools charge campus fees that cover services like the student gym, recreation centers, and events. Students may also need to pay athletics, public transportation, and technology fees. Certain classes may come with an extra lab fee, and online classes sometimes carry a distance learning fee. After meeting graduation requirements, some undergrads must also pay a commencement or graduation application fee.
Because fees vary so much depending on the school, prospective students should research the required fees at their college.
Living expenses also add up, whether students plan to live on campus, off campus, or at home. In addition to housing, living expenses include food, transportation, utilities, health insurance, and entertainment expenses.
Depending on the school, living expenses can add up to more than tuition. Living expenses also vary greatly depending on the state. For example, in New York, students should plan to spend nearly $10,000 per year on housing and $5,000-$6,000 on food. College living may come with a much lower price tag in other states.
Many universities offer calculators based on their tuition rates. This calculator from the University of Chicago takes 10 minutes to complete and tells students their estimated college costs.
The Cost of College Loans
The cost of college is more than most students can pay out of pocket even at an affordable college. Today, around 70% of undergraduates take out loans to cover college costs. But before borrowing money to pay for college, students should understand the types of loans available, how to calculate their financial need, and how much they need to repay after graduation.
What Kinds of Loans are Available?
Federal student loans offer the lowest interest rates and best repayment options. As a result, borrowers should first exhaust their federal loans before considering private loans.
The federal student aid program offers several types of loans. Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans help borrowers cover the cost of college. Undergraduates who meet financial need requirements can take out subsidized loans. The federal government pays interest on subsidized loans while the student completes their degree. Undergraduate and graduate students can take out unsubsidized loans, which offer a grace period for repaying interest. However, interest continues to accumulate while the borrower attends school.
Parents and graduate students can take out Direct PLUS Loans to pay for college. Unlike direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS Loans require a credit check. The Federal Perkins Loan program offered low-interest loans to students who demonstrated financial need. However, the program ended in 2018, so students can no longer take out Perkins loans.
How Can You Determine How Much You’ll Need?
Incoming students can determine how much they’ll need to borrow using the FAFSA, college loan calculators, and other tools. These forms and calculators require specific information on the cost of college, so prospective students may need to run the numbers several times using tuition costs for different schools.
For example, after submitting the FAFSA, applicants receive a report that lists the cost of attendance at the schools they list on the form. Students can then subtract their family contribution, scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid to determine how much to borrow.
How Can You Find Out How Much You Quality For?
For most students, filling out the FAFSA represents the first step in taking out student loans. The FAFSA uses the applicant’s financial information to create a student aid report, which goes to the applicant’s school. The report lists the student’s expected family contribution, which determines how much federal aid the student can receive.
The school’s financial aid office then informs students about the types of grants and loans they qualify for. Students with financial need may receive Pell grants or direct subsidized loans. The financial aid office can provide information on the different types of student loans to help borrowers make an informed decision.
How Do You Know What Your Payments Will Be When You Get Out of School?
Some students take out loans without considering their expected income or monthly payments after leaving school, which can lead to overborrowing. Instead, borrowers should research their student loan payments and their repayment options before taking out loans. For instance, students planning careers in public service or teaching may qualify for federal loan forgiveness programs.
Researching deferment, forbearance, and loan consolidation options can also help students understand their options after borrowing money for school. Borrowers who take out federal loans often complete entrance counseling, which educates borrowers on their repayment options.
Sallie Mae offers a calculator for borrowers to determine their student loan payments based on interest rate, length of the loan, and the number of loans.
Estimating Family Contribution
Determining their family contribution to college can help new students figure out their eligibility for financial aid and how much they might need in student loans.
For example, the FAFSA calculates need-based aid using a student’s expected family contribution (EFC). That number can vary depending on the applicant’s age, their income, and their family’s finances. An EFC calculator can estimate whether students qualify for need-based federal aid programs like the Pell Grant.
Many students take out student loans to cover a gap between their college costs and their family contribution. Federal borrowers do not need a credit history or cosigner to take out most types of loans. Some federal loans, like direct subsidized loans, take EFC into account to determine need. Students taking out private loans may need a cosigner to guarantee repayment of their loan.
This document, provided by the U.S. Department of Education, provides a comprehensive and detailed explanation of how and why EFCs are used and includes an example of the paperwork that will need to be filled out on the FAFSA.
This calculator lets students enter financial information to estimate their expected contribution toward college costs.
How to Save for College
Learning about college savings plans and calculating college costs can help families maximize their savings. This section introduces college savings calculators and offers tips and advice on saving for college.
What’s a 529 Savings Plan?
A 529 savings plan lets individuals and families save for college in a tax-advantaged investment account. Unlike a conventional savings account, earnings in a 529 account grow tax free, with tax-free withdrawals for qualified educational expenses. Many states also offer tax incentives for contributing to a 529 plan.
Anyone can open a 529 plan — the accounts come with no income or age limits. Account holders can also change the beneficiary, and 529 savings will not count against families for the FAFSA. Before opening a 529 account, check whether your state offers tax benefits. If not, savers can create an account in any state.
How Much Should I Start Saving for College?
It’s hard to know how much you’ll need to save for college. With the cost of college tuition rising, calculating how much to save can feel more like guessing. But future students can take several steps to start saving for college today.
First, students and families can use college savings calculators to estimate the cost of college in the future. The calculators introduced below use the projected cost of tuition to calculate how much you need to save each month. It’s also helpful to keep an eye on tuition costs at target schools. For example, if you are planning to attend a flagship public university, check out annual tuition increases to estimate future costs.
A Vanguard planner, this site helps students and families figure out how much to save for college based on current costs and savings goals.
Budgeting as a Student
Budgeting for college is not just about covering the cost of tuition, textbooks, and fees. Students should also consider saving for other expenses, particularly ones that loans may not cover, like entertainment and recreational activities. These costs can make a big difference in your budget and your college experience.
This section walks through the college costs that students might forget when creating their budget. It also introduces student budgeting calculators.
What Should You Budget For?
When most families start saving for college, they forget about the day-to-day expenses that can quickly add up. College is about more than paying tuition. Students also need a place to live, a transportation budget, and money for personal expenses.
Take, for example, housing and food costs. Many colleges provide estimated living expenses, but students on a budget may prefer a more exact number. On top of these expenses, students should budget for school supplies, which range from inexpensive (notebooks and pens) to expensive (a new laptop).
When calculating how much to save, students should consider their college experience. Do you want to live in the dorms? Will you need a car to get around town? If you’re going to college out of state, how will you pay to travel home during breaks? Getting specific can help you create an accurate budget and stick to it.
A tool to make budgeting for college easier, Calculate Your College Expenses considers school expenses, food costs, entertainment expenses, and other common expenses to help you create an appropriate budget.
A nonprofit dedicated to making college costs more transparent, Mapping Your Future offers resources and financial loan counseling to help students gain information about college costs and learn more about financial aid.
College students can track their balances and bills with Mint. By linking accounts to Mint, students can monitor their credit score, manage their finances, and budget for college costs.
How can students and their families use the various types of calculators available most effectively?
The most important type of calculator is a net price calculator. The net price is the difference between total college costs (e.g., tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, equipment, transportation, and miscellaneous/personal expenses) and gift aid (grants, scholarships and other money that does not need to be earned or repaid). This represents the real cost of the college and is needed to determine whether the college is affordable or not. If total resources (savings, contributions from current income, and reasonable debt) is less than the four-year net price, the college is affordable, otherwise not.
The next most important calculator is a loan calculator that can determine the monthly payment, total payments and total interest paid over the life of the loan, given the amount borrowed, interest rate and repayment term.
The third most important calculator is a college savings calculator that calculates how much you must save per month, given a college savings goal, earnings interest rate, contribution frequency and duration of contributions (e.g., from birth, from when the child enters high school, etc.). Also useful is a college savings growth calculator that shows how much money you will have given a particular savings contribution amount.
How can families best decide how much money they should be setting aside for college?
Families should start with the net price calculator, to determine the net price for several colleges their child will consider. Include a variety of college types, including an in-state public college and a private non-profit college. This will give you an idea of the current net price. If the child will not be enrolling in college for several years, assume that the net price will increase by 6% to 7% each year, on average.
Next, calculate the total amount of savings available to pay for college costs. If college is several years away, use a college savings calculator to figure out how much you can save in total or how much you need to save per month. Use about a third of the sticker price or net price as the goal if you don’t have another goal already.
Student loan debt is reasonable and affordable if total debt at graduation is less than your expected annual starting salary. So, use the student’s future annual income as the loan amount.
Combine the debt and savings figures with the amount of money the family expects to be able to contribute from income each year the child is in college. Compare this total with the four-year net price. If it is less than the net price, the college is affordable. Otherwise, the family will have to stretch to afford the college.
What are some of the costs that students and their families may forget to include when calculating costs?
There are many hidden college costs, such as class-specific fees, technology and printing fees, the cost of outfitting a dorm room, and various other fees. Assume that there will be $250 to $500 a month in such hidden fees.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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