Tuition at community colleges is $3,660 a year on average—but here's how much students actually pay

A student graduates from Southern Maine Community College.
Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Community colleges have long been an important stepping stone for Americans interested in continuing education.

The most recent figures from National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicate that there are approximately 8.7 million students in the United States studying at public two-year colleges, or community colleges.

Over the past several decades, the cost of earning a college diploma has increased dramatically, and community colleges are not immune. According to the College Board's 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report, sticker prices at public two-year institutions are more than twice as high in 2019 as they were in 1989.

During the 2018 - 2019 school year, the reported tuition at public two-year schools is an average $3,660.

Hill Street Studios | Getty Images

But in reality, many students end up paying far less in tuition. Published tuition costs do not account for scholarships, grants and tax benefits. The College Board broke down what the average net price of college is today — taking scholarships and grants into account — and found that students typically pay less than the published price.

Between 2009 and 2019, the average published tuition and fees at public two-year colleges increased by $930 (about 34% after adjusting for inflation) but the average combined grant aid and tax benefits also increased by over $1,300 (almost 50%) during that period.

In fact, according to the College Board, "56% of independent students and 50% of dependent students at public two-year colleges did not pay any part of their tuition and fees." Overall, more than half of community college students received enough grant aid to cover their tuition and fees.

The average grant aid and tax benefits provided to full-time students at public two-year institutions is about $4,050, which means the net tuition and fees to attend these schools is -$390. This is one reason why many students choose to attend one or two years of community college before transferring to a traditional four-year college.

Students walk on campus at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York.
Melanie Stetson Freeman | The Christian Science Monitor | Getty Images

Of course, community college students have other costs to consider tuition and fees. The College Board estimates that when room and board is taken into account, these students are on the hook for roughly $12,320 per year and after grants and scholarships are taken into account, they owe closer to $8,270.

This sum is still difficult for many Americans to cover, and a growing number of politicians support policies that cut the cost of community college or make it free entirely. In 2015, President Barack Obama proposed a national policy that would make two years of community college free for all eligible students.

"We have to make college affordable for every American, because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red," said Obama during his final State of the Union address in 2017. "We've actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that."

Today, at least 17 states offer tuition-free community college for residents.

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss:

Don't miss out on financial aid – here's how to get that money
Don't miss out on financial aid – here's how to get that money