Which states have the cheapest costs for college students?


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According to recent research, nearly 20 million individuals attend post-secondary institutions in the United States each year. Over the years, the average cost of college has risen dramatically. While there are several different post-secondary educational pathways that students can take, the one most commonly discussed is a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited college. The cost of college varies significantly based on several factors, including the type of institution (public, private non-profit, or private for-profit) and especially the location. Some states have a much higher average college tuition by year than others, often linked to the cost of living in a given state. Students who attend colleges in their home state also tend to pay much lower tuition than out-of-state students. Because tuition costs are so high, some students elect to complete part or all of their degrees at community colleges, which tend to be much more affordable, but community colleges do lack prestige and have limited courses. All of these factors come together to make up a simple truth: college in the United States is extremely expensive, and costs have grown in recent years.

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Why is College So Expensive?

Many students wonder why college is so expensive and why costs have risen sharply. College in the US is more expensive than almost anywhere else in the world. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that colleges tend to house students in dorms and residences, which are costly to maintain and add to the total cost of college for students. Another reason is that colleges in the US receive less government funding than schools in other countries, meaning that more of the burden of cost falls on students and their families. The rising costs can be partially attributed to inflation, a further reduction in state funding, and stagnating wages across the country.


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The program that students choose to attend can also be the reason for varied costs. Some degrees, such as chemistry or biology require more equipment, more specialization, and other elements that are costly for a college to provide, which usually means that they will have higher tuition costs. There is also a difference between college tuition, the cost of the actual instruction, and college fees, which covers everything else students will need for their college experiences. All of these factors come together and result in the final total cost of college.

Although college is very expensive, it is still widely considered to be a beneficial investment. A college degree can make it much easier for young adults to get well-paid jobs, find professional connections, and broaden their knowledge base. When making this investment, there are a lot of things students can do to reduce costs. Attending a public college means the school receives state funding and likely has lower tuition. Attending college as an in-state student means avoiding higher fees. If a program is not offered in a student’s home state, it is sometimes possible to get a college to waive out-of-state fees to allow students to attend. Essentially, the key to attending college without breaking the bank is to do extensive research. Tuition rates shown on college sites are usually per year rather than the total amount for a four-year degree, so students should always do the math to see how much they will be paying in total.

College Expenses

The total price tag on a college degree is called the cost of attendance (COA). This cost includes tuition, fees, room and board, textbooks and supplies, transportation to and from campus, and any other personal expenses that students might incur throughout their degree program. The cost of tuition is usually set at a rate that can pay instructors’ salaries, plus some money for the upkeep of the college. It is usually split into either semesters or quarters, depending on how the school schedule is laid out. Fees can cover any support services and facilities offered by the college, including funding for student organizations, sports teams, events, amenities, and more. College tuition ranges for many reasons, and it is always worth looking at a COA breakdown if one is available to see where one’s money is going. Some colleges allow students to opt-out of some fees if they are not planning on taking part in the services offered, ultimately reducing the total cost of schooling.

Related: Is it an overreach for Biden to cancel student loan debt?

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Average College Tuition Per Year

The cost of college changes each year, usually increasing in most states. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the cost of college tuition rose by approximately 10% at public colleges, 19% at private non-profit colleges, and 1% at private for-profit colleges between 2010 and 2020. It is estimated that this rate of increase will continue; it may even accelerate for all of the reasons listed above. Just as tuition costs are increasing, so is the average student debt. The high cost of college pushes many students to take out loans to pay for their schooling, and many of those loans have high-interest rates. Approximately 43.4 million people in the US currently have student debt, and that number is increasing by 1.2% each year. Private loans (as opposed to government loans) tend to be particularly predatory in their interest schemes and can be challenging to pay off. Because of these high costs, some students start their degrees at community colleges and then transfer later. While that can be a great plan, it is always important for students to check the credit transfer policies in their state to avoid problems.

Tuition Rate by State

One of the biggest factors that influence the cost of college is the state where the college is located. Generally, states with a lower cost of living have lower tuition, though not always, and even when you live in a state can have a major impact on cost of living. For example, it’s more expensive to live and go to school in New York City than Buffalo, or Seattle as opposed to Spokane. Other factors that influence the cost of college in each state include how much funding each state provides to its schools, the number of colleges available, how many students each campus accepts, the prestige of the schools in each state, and more.

Here we provide the average cost of tuition in every state, with the ranking based upon the addition of the average cost of living in each state.

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1. Hawaii

Hawaii is the most expensive state to live in by quite a wide margin, but it falls just over the halfway mark for tuition, at $11,000 per year.

Cost of in-state tuition: $11,000

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2. Vermont

Vermont costs an average of $17,750 per year in tuition but is eleventh from the top of the cost of living chart.

Cost of in-state tuition: $17,750

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3. New Hampshire

Cost of in-state tuition: $17,040

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4. Massachusetts


Cost of in-state tuition: $13,990

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5. Connecticut

Cost of in-state tuition: $14,550

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6. New Jersey

Cost of in-state tuition: $14,960

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7. Rhode Island

Cost of in-state tuition: $14,100

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8. Pennsylvania

Cost of in-state tuition: 

Related: Why college is not for everyone

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9. Oregon

Cost of in-state tuition: $12,250

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10. Delaware

Cost of in-state tuition: $13,900

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11. Virginia


Cost of in-state tuition: $14,120

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12. California

Cost of in-state tuition: $9,930

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13. New York


Cost of in-state tuition: $8,550

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14. Illinois


Cost of in-state tuition: $14,670

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15. Michigan

Cost of in-state tuition: $14,340

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16. Maryland


Cost of in-state tuition: $10,240

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17. Maine

Cost of in-state tuition: $11,030

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18. Arizona

Cost of in-state tuition: $11,820

Related: The best US cities for paying down college debt

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19. South Carolina


Cost of in-state tuition: $13,120

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20. Washington

Cost of in-state tuition: $10,900

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21. Minnesota

Cost of in-state tuition: $12,410

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22. Colorado

Cost of in-state tuition: $11,770

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23. Alaska

Cost of in-state tuition: $8,840

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24. Ohio


Cost of in-state tuition: $12,060

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25. Kentucky


Cost of in-state tuition: $11,170

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26. Texas


Cost of in-state tuition: $11,100

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27. Alabama

Cost of in-state tuition: $11,120

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28. North Dakota

Cost of in-state tuition: $10,020

Related: How to get a student loan

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29. Tennessee


Cost of in-state tuition: $10,570

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30. Louisiana


Cost of in-state tuition: $10,010

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31. Nevada


Cost of in-state tuition: $8,550

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32. South Dakota

Cost of in-state tuition: $9,300

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33. Indiana


Cost of in-state tuition: $9,940

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34. Missouri

Cost of in-state tuition: $9,800

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35. Wisconsin


Cost of in-state tuition: $9,160

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36. Iowa


Cost of in-state tuition: $9,670

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37. Nebraska

Cost of in-state tuition: $9,090

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38. Arkansas

Cost of in-state tuition: $9,250

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39. Idaho

Cost of in-state tuition: $8,000

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40. Utah


Cost of in-state tuition: $7,390

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41. Kansas


Cost of in-state tuition: $9,360

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42. Montana


Cost of in-state tuition: $7,260

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43. West Virginia


Cost of in-state tuition: $8,730

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44. Georgia

Cost of in-state tuition: $8,890

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45. Oklahoma


Cost of in-state tuition: $9,230

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46. New Mexico

Cost of in-state tuition: $7,980

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47. Mississippi

Cost of in-state tuition: $8,870

Mississippi is the cheapest state to live in, but its average tuition is $8,870 per year.

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48. North Carolina


Cost of in-state tuition: $7,390

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49. Florida


Cost of in-state tuition: $6,370

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50. Wyoming

Cost of in-state tuition: $6,100

Wyoming has the cheapest tuition, at $6,100 per year, but falls about a third of the way up the cost of living graph.

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How Much Does 4 Years of College Cost on Average?

It would be nice if there was just one number covering the average cost of college in each state. Unfortunately, because there are several types of colleges and several payment structures, there are multiple numbers to compare. State averages for in-state tuition are listed above, but what about out-of-state tuition, private colleges, and community colleges? While some college options are cheaper than others, tuition is rising across the board, and some students have to choose between not attending college or taking on large amounts of debt. Choosing the right place to complete a degree is crucial in determining the cost of college and finding something affordable. Before getting into the public-vs-private debate, consider the tuition costs for one of the more overlooked options: community college. Some students attend community college to boost credits, and others complete a full two-year associate’s degree at these schools. According to data from the NCES, the average annual cost of a two-year institution, including tuition and fees but excluding room and board as many two-year institutions do not offer them, was $3,621 in the 2019-2020 school year. For public two-year schools, that number dropped slightly to $3,377 in the same year, while private institutions averaged $16,898 for non-profit and $15,333 for for-profit schools.

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How to Pay for College

Looking at all of these statistics about the cost of college can make many students balk. The good news is that there are many good ways to pay for college that do not have to involve going into debt. Careful organization and research can yield positive results. This is not to say that absolutely anyone, regardless of financial situation, can afford to attend college because that would ignore the lived realities of many people in the United States who have low incomes and high expenses. However, the high price tag on colleges does not have to be a prohibitive factor for students who do not currently have the funds for their education. One option is for families to start saving money for college early if they can do so. Some people also pay for part or all of their college tuition by getting a job, although the days when it was possible to pay one’s way through college with part-time work are long over. Some jobs do have tuition benefits, including work-study programs and on-campus jobs. For those who do choose to work during college, attending night classes or doing online school or remote work may be easier options to manage. As previously noted, attending community college and transferring those credits to a four-year institution can make payment easier, especially since two-year institutions still have scholarships and financial aid available. In some cases, getting transfer credits can also help students graduate early, ultimately saving money.

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Average Cost of Public College

The graphs above show the average in-state tuition for public colleges in the US. Typically, these schools are the most cost-effective option. In the 2020-2021 school year, the NCES reported that the nationwide average cost of public college for in-state students was $9,400. For out-of-state students, that number rises dramatically. There are good reasons for being an out-of-state student: some programs are only offered at certain colleges, some students want a particular campus experience, and some students travel to take part in various sports. Visiting schools and asking questions is a good way to learn more about these options. As of the most recent NCES data, the average cost of public college for out-of-state students was $26,382 per year. Vermont was the most expensive for out-of-state students, averaging $39,947 per year. The cheapest part of the country for out-of-state students was the District of Columbia, at just $12,416 per year. These figures are for four-year institutions; while two-year institutions do have out-of-state costs, the difference tends to be much smaller: the same data suggests that in the 2018-2019 school year, in-state two-year public costs were $3,313 on average, while out-of-state costs averaged $7,917.

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Cost of Private College

The cost of private college is calculated differently from public institutions. There is no distinction between in-state and out-of-state costs for these schools since they do not receive state funding. They fund themselves, which means they generally charge much higher tuition rates. However, there are some relatively inexpensive private colleges, so students should not write them off entirely without extensive research. Many private colleges also offer generous scholarships to help students pay for tuition. Most private colleges offer room and board, so those costs will be included in the following figures even though the cost of tuition on its own is lower. There is a major distinction between public non-profit and public for-profit schools: the former tend to have better reputations and better accreditation, but they also tend to be slightly more expensive. Students should always research any school they choose to attend to ensure they receive a high-quality degree from a properly accredited institution.

As of the 2019-2020 school year, the NCES reported that private non-profit colleges cost an average of $48,965 per year, including tuition, fees, room, and board. Private for-profit colleges cost an average of $27,696 in the same year. For tuition and fees alone, private non-profits came in at $35,807, and for-profits cost $14,957; the latter numbers are particularly useful for students wishing to live at home during college. While these are the average costs, some private colleges are significantly more expensive, especially if they have a lot of associated prestige. The total cost of attending the University of Chicago in Illinois is around $79,356 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Other top price tags include Brown University in Rhode Island ($78,246), the University of Pennsylvania ($78,184), and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire ($78,144).

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Sources of Funding

Getting a job and saving money are two good options, but there are many other sources of funding for college, and most students source their tuition in a variety of ways. Scholarships|are offered by colleges and by independent institutions, often providing thousands of dollars to successful applicants. Grants are similar to scholarships but may provide funding for projects or living costs in addition to tuition. Grants are also more plentiful for graduate school than undergraduate degrees. Scholarships and grants are excellent options because they do not have to be repaid and are usually given based on a combination of merit and financial need. Students should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be matched with various funding options from grants to scholarships to loans. There are various online databases for scholarship searches that help match students from all backgrounds with the best funding sources for their needs. Some students even fund their college careers with social media campaigns, a solution that is becoming increasingly popular.

Student loans are a common option for many students wishing to finance a college degree, but they have their downsides. Loans must be repaid with interest, meaning that many students end up in great debt just as they start their careers. Some loans have a grace period after graduation before which students have to begin repayments, while others are more aggressive. Because of the financial burden that loans pose down the line, it is always important to research the exact terms of any loan and to have a repayment plan in place to ensure that the full amount can be paid off as soon as possible.

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Applying to Funding

The most important thing about applying for funding is that it should be done early. The process of applying for scholarships can be lengthy, so students should start as early as possible and be organized in their approach to each application. This is also true of FAFSA applications. Some grants and scholarships are available year-round, but most have set application deadlines and have limited funding, so only those whose applications are completed in good time are considered. When applying for any source of funding, students should be sure to read all instructions carefully and present a clear, professional, and complete application. Good candidates need and want the funding they are applying for and stand out as exemplary students and citizens. For each application, all elements (resumes, essays, and so on) must be unique and tailored to best show off a student’s good qualities. Resumes, if required, should cover work experience, education, soft skills, hard skills, and other valuable experiences like volunteering and relevant extra-curriculars. Students who receive scholarships usually have to maintain a certain GPA throughout their college careers to maintain funding.

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Student Debt

As previously mentioned, more than 43 million people in the US currently have student debt. That debt totals around 1.75 trillion dollars as of 2022. According to the Education Data Initiative, over 90% of people who take out student loans get federal loans, while the rest take out private debt. Data on federal loans are much more readily available. Currently, the average debt per borrower (counting only federal loans because private loan companies do not release this information) is $37,667. It is estimated that, including private loans, the average may be as high as $40,274 per person. For those who attend public colleges, the average amount borrowed is $32,880 over four years. Debt has been increasing quite rapidly over the past few years, which poses a challenge for many people as it can take several years to pay off even a small loan. In recent years, there have been increasing calls to forgive student debt, and there are some indications that this loan forgiveness may be on the horizon for some borrowers. However, nobody should take out loans on the assumption that they will be forgiven. With college costs continuing to increase, many people feel that going into debt is their only option. Although college is a worthy investment, it is always a good idea to exhaust all other sources of funding before considering loans to minimize later debt and take out federal loans over private loans whenever possible.

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Is College Worth It?

There is no way around it: attending college in the United States is expensive. Tuition is high and getting higher, and more and more students are taking out high-interest loans to pay for their post-secondary education. Although costs can seem overwhelming, not every college costs $79,000 per year: many are significantly cheaper, and it is always worth looking at the breakdown of costs to find more affordable options. Attending a public college as an in-state student, starting a degree at a community college and then transferring, and applying for scholarships and grants are all good ways to make college a less financially daunting experience. There are good ways to make college degrees easier to obtain for those who can plan carefully and do their research. College degrees are extremely valuable both in the job market and for individuals’ personal educational development, so although it is challenging, finding ways to attend college is ultimately a good investment of time, energy, and money.

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