At first glance, the price of attending college may seem astounding.

“In 2023-24,” reports the College Board, “average estimated budgets (tuition and fees, housing and food, and allowances for books and supplies, transportation and other personal expenses) for full-time undergraduate students range from $19,860 for public two-year in-district students and $28,840 for public four-year in-state students to $46,730 for public four-year out-of-state students and $60,420 for private nonprofit four-year students.”

In its report on “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2023,” the College Board includes a graphic that breaks these numbers down by their components.

The estimated average $28,840 it would cost to attend and live at a four-year public college in your home state, for example, includes $11,260 for tuition and fees; $12,770 for housing and food; $1,250 for books and supplies; $1,290 for transportation; and $2,270 for other expenses.

The estimated average $60,420 it would cost to attend and live at a private four-year college includes $41,540 for tuition and fees; $14,650 for housing and food; $1,250 for books and supplies; $1,100 for transportation; and $1,880 for other expenses.

If these estimated prices stayed steady for four years, earning a degree at a public in-state college would cost $115,360. Four years spent earning a degree at a private college would cost $241,680.

In October, based on data from real estate company Redfin, Forbes Advisor published a list of what the median home price was in each of the 50 states as of this September. “Redfin’s data,” said Forbes Advisor, “covers all home types, including single-family houses, condos and townhomes.”

“The state with the least expensive housing market had a median price of $229,000 in September, according to Redfin’s monthly housing data,” Forbes Advisor reported.

That happened to be Iowa, which will soon hold its Republican presidential caucuses.

In Ohio, the median home price was $235,000. In Michigan, it was $253,000. In Maryland, it was $410,000; in Virginia, it was $413,000; and in Arizona, it was $435,000.

A married couple, who each graduated from a four-year private college and spent $241,680 to do so (a combined $483,360), would spend less buying a median-priced home in Maryland, Virginia or Arizona than they had spent getting their college degrees.

Fortunately, according to the College Board, many Americans who attend college do not pay that full estimated cost.

“In 2019-2020,” said the College Board report, “31 percent of full-time in-state students at public four-year colleges received enough grant aid to cover their tuition and fees, including 64 percent of those from families with incomes of less than $40,000 and 9 percent of those from families with incomes of $120,00 or more.”

“In 2019-2020, 18 percent of full-time students at private nonprofit four-year institutions received enough grant aid to cover their tuition and fees, including 35 percent of those from families with incomes of less than $40,000 and 7 percent of those from families with incomes of $120,000 or more,” said the report.

“In 2022-23, undergraduate students received an average of $15,480 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student in financial aid: $10,680 in grants, $3,680 in federal loans, $850 in education tax credits and deductions, and $90 in Federal Work-Study,” it said.

So, what is the payoff for someone who goes to college and graduates — even if they never receive a grant or a loan?

As this column has noted before, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. The Census Bureau’s household income data (Table HINC-01) from its Current Population Survey shows that in 2022 households in which the householder had earned a bachelor’s degree (but not higher) had a median household income of $108,800. By contrast, households in which the householder had only earned a high school degree, had a median household income of $51,470.

The median household income of those with bachelor’s degrees was $57,330 greater than those who had only graduated from high school and not attended college.

That $57,330 difference in median household income almost equaled the College Board’s estimated cost of $60,402 for the current school year at a private four-year college.

As this column noted last year of the Census Bureau’s 2021 household income numbers, the 2022 numbers indicate again that median household income increases as the education of the householder increases.

The median income of households in which the householder started but did not finish high school was $35,470 in 2022. For householders who finished high school but did not attend college, it was $51,470. For householders who earned an associate degree, it was $74,920. For college graduates, it was $108,800. For those with a master’s degree, it was $128,000. For those with a doctorate, it was $151,400; and for those with a professional degree, it was $157,800.

Yes, college is worth it — financially.

A different question — and ultimately a more important one — is the moral and intellectual value of attending a particular college.

A truly great four-year college will leave its graduates not only better informed but no less virtuous than they were the day they first stepped on campus.

Terence P. Jeffrey on December 27, 2023

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