Understanding College Affordability

How Students, Institutions, and the Public Pay for Higher Education

Rising concerns over college tuition and student debt, combined with the widespread conviction that a degree is essential for a middle-class lifestyle, have led to a sense that college in the United States has become "unaffordable." But what does affordability actually mean?

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Update January 2018: Both the options and the challenges students and families face in financing higher education vary considerably from state to state—what steps are states taking to address college affordability? Learn more in our new state policy section.

What Is College?

Nonprofit or for profit, public or private, two-year or four-year—colleges, much like the students who attend them, come in all shapes and sizes.

The Cost of Educating Students

Tuition and fees cover only a fraction of what an education actually costs. How do institutions fund the rest?

Prices and Expenses

Tuition is the most obvious expense facing college students, but it’s far from the only budget item they must consider when planning for college.

Financial Aid

Financial aid helps students and families pay tuition, fees, and other expenses associated with going to college. Where does that aid come from, and which students get it?

Covering Expenses

How do students fill the financial gap between the financial aid they’re offered and the full cost of attending college?

After College

College affordability isn’t just about the resources available when a student enrolls. How well the investment of time and money pays off is just as important.

Breaking Even

Going to college is an investment. How long will it take to break even on that investment?

Explore Student Profiles


College affordability is different depending on who you are, where you come from, and where you go. Explore these student profiles to better understand how different circumstances and decisions affect different students.