Cost of University Education in United States

There was a recent discussion on the costs of higher education in the united states. (Full discussion here.)

The original complaint is was that it was very expensive to go to that person’s local preferred school, at $24,000 per year. Discussion ensued.

When it comes to the 4-year bachelors degree, the US has a fairly different viewpoint than much of the rest of the world. To hold an advanced career in the US, the general perception is that a bachelors degree is necessary. But how does that equate to the rest of the world?

For the countries in the discussion, Australia was most lax in the need for tertiary education. In that nation, only about 0.8% of the population was enrolled in tertiary education at any time; they also have 43 universities (public and private) to serve their 22 million citizens.

Germany offers free tertiary education, with the caveat that you must meet strict qualifications in order to attend. About 2.1% of the population is enrolled in about 70 schools, serving a population of 81 million citizens.

The United Kingdom’s tertiary education system is interesting to see as your grades and your attended school have a direct effect on the positions that you can be employed in. 4.0% of the population is enrolled in about 163 schools across the United Kingdom, serving 62 million people.

The United States tertiary education system is managed differently than most other nations. About 5.7% of the population is enrolled in the nations 2774 4-year universities and colleges, serving the nations 315 million people.

You read that right. In 2010, the united states had 2774 4-year title-iv schools. The availability of tertiary education in the United States is among the best in the world. (The US is approximately tied with Japan and Israel, and all three are a bit behind Canada.)

So if we have a huge number of school, and a large number of people are going to school, why is it so expensive? How can so many people afford such expensive schools?

It turns out that the school the original comment was talking about was the local popular school. When I tried to look up statistics on the costs of schools across the country, two numbers jumped out at me. The average (also called the mean) cost at a 4-year university is $4081. The median cost is $2916.

Most people don’t have a background in statistics for those two numbers to mean anything. When the median and mode are different from each other, it means we don’t have a normal curve. The image below was blatantly stolen from a statistics course:

In our case, the mean is greater than the average, and we have a right-skewed distribution of costs.

In other words most schools are below $4000 per semester, a small number of schools cost much more.

The person who asked the original question and saw $24,000 per year was thinking about attending one of the less common expensive schools, fully half of the universities in the US (roughly 1400 of the roughly 2800 4-year schools) are below $9000 per year.

When I looked at the costs of our local universities (U of U, WSU, Utah State, UVU, BYU, and more) I found that almost all of them were relatively low cost.

Then consider that those are the base costs. Most people qualify for financial aid such as Pell grants, and full time students generally qualify for about $4000 per year in ‘free’ money. Assuming a student is willing to study, they can generally maintain a scholarship while in school.  Doing a bit of research, most people with an A- average can find $2000 or so in additional ‘free’ money.

Combine the numbers and you can have an out-of-pocket school expense of less than $3000 per year at your choice of nearly 1400 schools.

You might need to travel a little, it might not be the local popular school, but it is still a perfectly valid education if you want it.

This is probably why two of my in-laws, a young couple, is attending an out-of-state school. The school’s base tuition cost is $1825 per semester ($4375 per year), and I’m certain the two both qualify for federal aid (almost everyone does) and also have scholarships.  Their out-of-pocket expenses are probably less than their cell phone bill.

School can be expensive and I recommend you save up. It may require effort on your part such as moving close to a school, but I believe tertiary education is within reach for almost everyone in the United States if they really want it.

Comments 1

  • Following up, a niece has chosen her school. She’ll be paying about $1800 per semester (before scholarships), turning down a more popular school that was nearly twice as much.

    Both schools are far cheaper than the $8000 per semester in the original discussion.

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