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College Planning

Saving for college: What's the magic number?

Tuition and expenses can vary greatly between colleges. There are several resources available that help you calculate the amount you need to save.

College is often one of the largest financial hurdles families face. Part of the challenge lies in identifying the financial target when saving for college. Tuition varies by program and school, and is affected by inflation.

What's the average cost of college tuition?

According to The College Board tuition and fees for 2018-2019 at an in-state public four year institution averaged $10,230.

Those are the figures for a year of college today, but what about in the future? It's difficult to predict what prices might look like five or 10 years from now, but there are some projections based on inflation that can help.

The College Cost Calculator at can be a good place to start. By plugging in the $10,230 average public tuition cost at a 3% inflation rate, the calculator predicts that in 10 years, the average total cost for that same college will be $57,518. In 15 years from now, that same education could cost $66,679!

Other college cost considerations

There are several other considerations to plan for that may not be reflected in tuition estimates. For example, textbooks are usually not covered by tuition. These costs can vary widely from year to year based on the requirements of specific courses. Sometimes, these costs can be mitigated by borrowing library books, but that's never a guarantee. Sometimes Professors may put together a photocopied reading package themselves, which must be purchased.

In addition, the cost of room and board is not usually reflected in the annual tuition numbers. Room and board on campus isn't necessarily cheaper than renting elsewhere. The costs can depend greatly on a student's eating habits, proximity to grocery stores, willingness to share a room, and a host of other details.

The good news about college savings plans

The good news is that it's getting easier to plan. The U.S. Department of Education runs a College Affordability and Transparency center, which requires American colleges to submit financial details. On their website you can price out colleges with some helpful search functions, and also look for financial aid resources.

Remember that you may not need to save the entirety of college costs before your kids get there. Every dollar you save helps, but paying for college can be managed with financial aid and loans. Before making your savings budget, you may want to factor in those extra sources of income. For more on this topic, see our article, “The Savings Balancing Act.”


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