College Game Plan

Your high school senior doesn’t know this key fact about college, and it will cost you

Key Points
  • More than 4 in 10 high school seniors don't know the average annual tuition at a four-year college or university.
  • About 60 percent of high school juniors and seniors have less than $5,000 saved for higher education.
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Your high school senior has already committed to the college he or she will attend. Odds are your scholar has no idea how much it costs.

Recent research from Junior Achievement and Citizens Bank showed that more than 40 percent of senior-year students don't know how much an average year of tuition at a four-year college or university costs.

The poll surveyed 500 juniors, 500 seniors and 500 college freshmen online in March.

"Undergraduates are coming in without a full understanding of what they've signed themselves up for," said Brendan Coughlin, president of consumer lending and deposits at Citizens Bank.

"The decision-making process around college is still highly emotional," he said. "Folks are skipping the hard conversations."

Considering May 1 was National College Decision Day — the deadline by which 12th graders generally must determine where they'll begin their higher education — it might be time to brush up on how much you'll pay out of pocket.

Best estimates

In all, 44 percent of high school seniors and 58 percent of juniors admitted that they didn't know how much the average annual tuition is at a private college.

Four out of 10 seniors and 52 percent of juniors said they didn't know how much the average tuition was at an in-state public college.

For reference, four-year private colleges charged an average of $34,740 in tuition and fees for the 2017 to 2018 school year, according to the College Board. Meanwhile, four-year public in-state colleges charged an average of $9,970 during the 2017 to 2018 school year.

Those data points leave out the average annual cost of room and board during that period: $10,800 for a public college, and $12,210 for a private school.

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Most families of those polled had but a fraction of that amount saved: About 60 percent of juniors and seniors had $5,000 or less put away for higher education, according to the survey.

Where to begin

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Here's what you and your child should know well before the first day at college, according to Coughlin.

  • Find the total cost of attendance: Look at the full four years, along with related costs and aid. Be aware that college expenses rise after the first year, and if your grants hold steady, you'll borrow more. "A surprising number of students assess their decision based on freshman year," said Coughlin.
  • Determine how to pay: Pick through your award letters and aid packages to sniff out "free money" in the form of grants or scholarships. If you really want to attend a particular school and you get in, negotiate your aid. Don't forget: In some circumstances, "free money" may come with a tax bill from Uncle Sam.
  • Get familiar with debt: Prepare your child for the reality of loan repayment and compound interest. "If you take out $10,000 in debt each year, expect to repay $350 to $400 each month," said Coughlin. "How does that compare to the income you earn?"