The average college tuition cost has dropped in the 2020-2021 academic year over the prior year across both public and private schools, U.S. News data shows.
A college's sticker price is the amount advertised as the full rate for tuition and fees before financial need, scholarships and other aid are factored in. Net price is the amount that a family pays after aid and scholarships – usually offsetting the sticker price shock.
Unlike in recent years, the trend of year-over-year tuition hikes has reversed. The average tuition and fees at private ranked colleges has fallen by about 5%, according to data for the 2020-2021 school year submitted to U.S. News in an annual survey. Similarly, the average price for in-state tuition and fees at ranked public schools has dropped by about 4%, and the average out-of-state price has decreased by about 6% from last year.
Schools reported this data in spring and summer 2020. However, in light of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on families across the country, many colleges have suspended their planned annual tuition hikes this year, and others are offering tuition discounts for the fall 2020 semester.
The cost of education remains a significant financial challenge for many families. Seemingly small increases can add up over decades, especially with several years of static or declining wages. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, U.S. median household income in 2018 was almost the same as it was 20 years prior. In addition to tuition and fees, students must also pay for other expenses, such as housing, food and books, which can run thousands of dollars a year.
Choice of college contributes to affordability. According to the recent 2020 Sallie Mae survey How America Pays for College, most families weigh financial concerns as heavily as academic needs when selecting a college: Thirty-eight percent of families say financial considerations, such as the total cost of attending or the financial aid package, were the deciding factor in their final choice.
The average cost of tuition and fees at a ranked in-state public college is about 72% less than the average sticker price at a private college, at $9,687 for the 2020-2021 year compared with $35,087, respectively, U.S. News data shows. That average cost for out-of-state students at public colleges comes to $21,184 for the same year.
One way to determine a college's affordability is by evaluating financial aid award packages. While an institution like Yale University in Connecticut, for instance, advertises a sticker price of $57,700 for tuition and fees in 2020-2021, the average cost to students last year after receiving need-based grants was around $18,000.
Since 1993, U.S. News has provided information on the Best Value Schools, which measure academic quality and price, factoring in the net cost of attendance for a student after receiving the average level of need-based financial aid. U.S. News introduced a new factor in these rankings this year: the percentage of need-based aid recipients who received grants and scholarships, a change that rewards colleges whose aid policies allow students to rely less on loans.
Harvard University is the No. 1 Best Value School among National Universities, schools that are often research-oriented and offer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. Harvard provided need-based grants to 52% of undergraduates. The highly selective Massachusetts school offered an average need-based scholarship or grant award of $58,902 to undergraduates in 2019-2020. That amount more than exceeded the school's tuition and fees that year of $51,925; however, students still had to pay other costs, like room and board.
Regional schools, including those that aren't as selective as Harvard, are also generous with need-based financial aid. At McDaniel College, for example, although the school charged $44,540 in tuition and fees last year, 76% of students received need-based grants. The Maryland institution's financial aid awards in 2019-2020 dropped the average net price for students to $22,994.
Below is a map showing the top-ranked Best Value Schools in each of the U.S. News categories: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Colleges and Regional Universities. The latter two categories are further divided into geographic areas: N