The Encouraging Truth About How Americans Are Covering the Cost of College

The average annual costs for tuition plus room and board have reached an average $45,000 for private colleges and $35,000 for out-of-state-students at public colleges. When students and parents learn about these staggering figures, panic and resignation can set in.

But it’s important to keep in mind that most people don’t pay the full sticker price for college — and what they do pay tends to come from a variety of sources, not just from savings or loans. Sallie Mae’s 2017 How America Pays for College survey casts light on how families afford higher education costs, and may offer some reassurance that one way or another, you, too, can afford college.

Here are some of the most interesting findings.

1. Few families pay the highest prices you hear about

Despite those high average costs, Sallie Mae found that the average family paid only $23,757 for college in the 2016–2017 academic year.

Why is this so much lower than the scary averages reported in the news? For one thing, the private schools that charge the highest prices account for a small minority of all college students in America. Sure, Harvard is expensive, but most of us aren’t going there. Many students go to community colleges, where the nationwide average for tuition and fees is just $3,347, according to Some community colleges are even tuition-free. Other students may attend in-state public universities, where College Board reports the average tuition and fees are below $10,000 a year. (See also: What Does “Free” College Tuition Really Pay For?)

These examples don’t include room and board, nor do they include other expenses that students often fail to account for, such as travel to and from school. But even if you factor in those expenses, these costs are a lot lower than the scary headlines would lead you to believe. (See also: 9 College Expenses You Aren’t Saving For)

2. Half of students don’t pay room and board

According to Sallie Mae’s survey, a full 50 percent of college students now live at home with their parents, saving a ton of money on rent and cafeteria food. Even if they contribute to household expenses, the cost is likely to be less than it would be if they lived on their own.

3. Scholarships and grants cover more than you think

Funds that students don’t have to pay back, such as federal grants, grants provided by the schools, and scholarships, cover more than a third of the cost of college for the average student. That’s the largest funding source, greater than what either parents or students contribute, and it’s been on the…

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