How to Compare College Costs: A Step-by-Step Guide

Choosing the right college is crucial, and one of the most challenging aspects is comparing the costs. It goes beyond just tuition fees; there are several components that make up the overall cost of attending college.

This guide will walk you through the necessary steps to accurately compare college costs and make an informed decision.

1. Find Each School’s Cost of Attendance

The first step in the process is to calculate each school’s Cost of Attendance. Here’s what’s included in the cost of attendance:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Books and supplies
  • Transportation

It’s important to remember your school’s cost of attendance might not be accurately reflected in your financial aid award letter. Some schools will omit essentials to make their financial aid offers appear more competitive than they truly are.

To ensure accuracy, double-check with the financial aid office of each school and confirm that all components are included in their COA calculations. Additionally, be aware that schools may have different COA figures for in-state and out-of-state students, so make sure you’re looking at the right one.

2. Review Your Financial Aid Packages

Once you have determined the COA for each school, it’s time to compare the financial aid offers. Start by evaluating the “free money” portion, which includes grants and scholarships – the financial aid that you don’t have to repay. Add up all the gift aid being offered and subtract that amount from the school’s COA.

This will give you the net price or your out-of-pocket costs for each school. Understanding the net price will help you gain a clearer perspective on the actual expenses associated with each college.

Next, consider the loan offers from each school. Are they sufficient to cover the remaining costs, or will you need additional funding? If needed, think about whether you can manage the rest through personal savings or part-time employment.

3. Factor in Each City’s Cost of Living

Another important variable to consider when comparing college costs is the cost of living in each city. The expenses for off-campus housing, groceries, and entertainment can vary significantly from place to place.

To factor this in, utilize online tools like Nerdwallet, Bankrate, or any “cost of living calculator” to compare the cost of living between cities. These tools will assist you in assessing the affordability and feasibility of each location. However, for major expenses like housing, it’s essential to do further research. Visit rental websites like Trulia to ensure that available housing options align with your budget and comfort.


By following these steps, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of the true costs associated with the colleges you’re considering. While you should always be mindful of your financial situation, don’t forget that college is an investment in your future.

The knowledge and experiences you gain during your college years will shape who you become as you enter the real world. So, wherever you choose to enroll, make the most of everything your school has to offer. You’ll be grateful for the opportunities you seize and the growth you experience throughout your college journey.

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