How much does college cost?

College costs a lot. I’m not breaking new ground by telling you this. College is ridiculously expensive, to the point where a lot of people ask whether or not college is actually a good investment – a question that likely seemed ridiculous over the course of most of the 20th century. But this isn’t the 20th century anymore, and the cost of college continues to increase in many cases. So just how much does college cost today?

According to data compiled by US News and World Report, the cost of college varies dramatically based on the type of school you a select. For students choosing an in-state public college, the average tuition and fees for the 2019-20 school year is $10,116. For students choosing an out-of-state public college, that number rises to $22,577 for 2019-20. And for students choosing a private college, that number rises even further to $36,801 for 2019-20. Oh, and none of those numbers include room, board books, or any other incidental expenses that students tend to run up while in college.

Now, certain schools can vary significantly from these average numbers. There are a number of private colleges that require tuition and fees well north of $60,000 per year at the moment. There are also private colleges that can be found as cheaply as $20,000 per year. Likewise, there are in-state public college tuitions that can come close to $20,000 per year, while you can find others for less than $5,000 per year. Furthermore, there are financial aid packages that can run the gamut as well and make incredibly expensive schools suddenly seem just as reasonable as schools priced tens of thousands of dollars less.

Another thing to keep in mind is that these are prices for college today. From 2007 to 2017, tuition and fees at colleges increased between 2.2 and 2.7 percent per year on average, depending on the type of school students chose, according to data supplied by The College Board. So for those of you with a newborn, for instance, simply trying to save for the cost of college today is not the right exercise. You need to save based on the projections for what college is going to cost in the future, whether that future is five years from now or 18 years from now.

The range of prices and experiences in the college world is incredibly vast. It’s really, really intimidating to try to make a decision with so many options out there, especially as an 18-year-old who may not have a clue about what the heck they want to do when they grow up. Chances are, they probably don’t want to be an astronaut anymore, but 18-year-olds have still been known to be plenty unrealistic or flighty from day-to-day about what they actually want to do in life.

So the key isn’t just asking what college costs. It’s asking what you are paying for when you go to college.

At a certain level, as painful as it may be, you’re paying for a credential. It’s a badge that says you have the baseline level of knowledge needed to receive a degree in a specific subject. That degree may or may not have actually taught you anything meaningful about that subject, but the fact is employers use a college degree as a heuristic to speed the process of sifting through résumés.

On another level, you are actually paying for an education. You’re paying for people schooled in a specific subject to teach you, your child, or your grandchild about their subject of expertise with the hope that the knowledge the student acquires is useful enough to make a living for themselves. That sometimes actually happens, but there are an awful lot of students who go on and work in fields that are either only tangentially, or not-at-all related to what they studied.

Yours truly is one of them – I majored in history, only to carve out what is now a decade-old career in finance. The world works in mysterious ways.

But college isn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be just about hard facts and credentials. As the movie Good Will Hunting happily points out, you could get your facts by using a library card the right way if you really wanted to. There are plenty of credentials from trade schools and training programs that can give you the skills to earn a living. What college should really help students with is developing processes by which they can analyze the world, not just so they can be able to provide for their family, but so they can navigate questions beyond the workplace. The best teachers and professors I ever had at any level weren’t just about memorizing and delivering facts on command – they were about developing processes to learn for yourself.

The costs of college are significant in many cases today. You need to ask yourself if they’re worth paying for in your specific situation. Not because there aren’t benefits to going to college – if you go to the right school with the right program for you, it can open up doors to the exact career you may want. But in other cases, a poor choice of school for the wrong reasons can result in a decision that can hamstring a student with significant debt.

Know the cost, but also know what you’re paying for – if all you want is a credential or knowledge, there may be other ways to get there. You or your child may find that you are happier and more productive learning a trade rather than going to college. The students who get the most out of college are ones who actively engaged with professors to learn about the processes behind the knowledge that lead to the credentials, not the ones that just pursue credentials for the sake of owning them.