What Are You Really Getting for Your College Tuition?

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College tuition is nothing if not a complicated topic. If you’re thinking about going to college or you have someone close to you who’s attending college, one of the most important things that you’ll have to talk about is the college tuition. Many people can’t afford college tuition on their own, and they might wonder why college tuition is so expensive. Here’s what you need to know about what you’re really getting when you pay college tuition.

What Does Your College Tuition Actually Pay For?

Breaking Down $100 of Tuition

First and foremost, it’s a good idea to look at a tuition breakdown. However, while a college budget can be a useful piece of information, it’s also unwieldy for many people. Instead, it’s a good idea to consider $100 of tuition.

If you give a college $100 of tuition, how will they spend it? On average, they’ll spend it approximately like this:

  • $15.81 – Salaries
  • $15.58 – Hospitals and Healthcare
  • $11.66 – Research
  • $11.47 – General Instruction Expenses
  • $9.61 – Auxiliary Student Enterprises
  • $8.26 – Academic Support
  • $8.15 – Institutional Support
  • $6.25 – Other, Including Taxes and Liabilities
  • $4.75 – Student Services
  • $4.52 – Public Services
  • $3.41 – Grants and Financial Aid
  • $0.53 – Independent Operations 

There’s a lot to unpack in this grouping of tuition payment. However, the main thing to take away is that, on average, $61.46 of your $100 will go to things that are necessary for the college to teach you, while the remaining $38.54 goes toward things that aren’t necessary for academic success.

Public Versus Private Tuition Costs

If you ask a variety of people what the difference is between public college and private college, they’ll almost certainly come up with a huge variety of answers. However, one answer you’ll almost certainly get more than once is, “The cost.”

It’s absolutely true that public school costs less on average than private school. For the 2019/2020 school year, the College Board indicated that an in-state public school costs $21,950 yearly on average, including tuition, fees, room, and board. However, a private school costs $49,870 yearly for exactly the same thing, which is more than twice the cost of a public school.

Although you don’t necessarily need to think about tuition costs first and foremost, you do need to think about them at some point. When you can save over $110,000 across a four-year degree, it almost makes sense to choose the public school even if the private school may offer a better education.

Tuition Trends

What about trends in tuition? The concept of tuition as a percentage of operating income is an important one because it can indicate how much money colleges are taking in. Public colleges especially have seen a huge increase in tuition as a percentage of operating income.

In 2000, tuition made up 29.2% of a public college’s income stream on average. By 2018, tuition had gone up by more than 25% and tuition now made up 46.6% of a public college’s income stream. That means tuition is fueling much more of public college.


At the end of the day, it’s always best to know more about things that you want to talk about. Tuition is one of those things. Whether you’re planning to go to school yourself or you just want to help someone understand their own tuition, this information will hopefully make it easier for you to understand for yourself.

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