A Primer on the College Student Journey

Key Facts and Figures

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Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

There are big differences between the “sticker price” of college and what most students actually pay: the average sticker price for one year at a private nonprofit four-year college was almost $44,000 in 2015-2016; but the average net price that students paid (including the amount they borrowed for future payment) was $26,400.

About one-third of all full-time students pay the full sticker price, while the remaining two-thirds pay a reduced net price.

More students are taking out more money for more

  • The proportion of college graduates who took out federal loans increased from approximately 50 percent in 2000 to
    60 percent in 2012.
  • The median amount borrowed among college graduates with debt in 2012 ranged from about $10,000 at community colleges to almost $30,000 at private four-year institutions.
  • The median cumulative loan amount for college graduates increased nearly 25 percent from 2000 to 2012.

Students who do not graduate and who take out the smallest loan amounts have the highest default rates, whereas students who graduate from private nonprofit four-year colleges have the lowest default rates.

Net cost has risen fastest at public four-year institutions and has decreased at public two-year colleges:

  • Students today pay 73 percent more than they did two decades ago to attend public four-year colleges. They also pay 55 percent more than they did as recently as six years ago.
  • Students today pay 32 percent more than they did two decades ago to attend private four-year colleges and 10 percent more than they did six years ago.
  • Students paid 25 percent more to attend for-profit institutions in 2012 than they did in 2000.
  • Students and their families pay half of what they paid two decades ago in net tuition and fees to attend public two-year institutions. They pay 16 percent less than they did six years ago.

Decreases in per-student state funding play a major role in explaining increases in tuition and fees at public four-year institutions: adjusted for inflation, state funding per full-time student in 2014 was nearly 30 percent lower than in 2000.