The Breakdown of What College Tuition Pays For

College tuition is a confusing and very complicated topic. With college tuition becoming a significant conversation for a number of people, both collegiate and non-collegiate, you might want to know a bit more about it.

Whether you are wondering what your college tuition goes toward or you are thinking about a friend or family member who will be facing this question, here are a few interesting points about tuition to help you learn more.

What Does Your College Tuition Actually Pay For?

Breaking Down $100 of Tuition

The United States Department of Education collects a variety of information from colleges every year. One piece of that information is where they spend their money. Although you don’t get an itemized list at the end of the year, this information can help you understand a bit more about where your tuition money goes.

However, these large budgets can look extremely intimidating for the average individual. Instead of looking at these huge budgets, you can break it down to how a college would spend $100 of tuition. That $100 would go 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

In this list, you’ll see $61.46 that goes to direct education expenses, like faculty salaries and instruction expenses. There are also less-direct education expenses, like healthcare and research, which take up $38.54 of the $100.

Private Colleges vs. Public Colleges

There are many differences that you might notice between a private and public college. One thing you’ll probably notice is the distinct difference in cost.

According to the College Board, in the 2019-2020 school year, a year of in-state public education costs $21,950 on average for students, including room and board. A private college is $49,870. Over four years, that means you’ll spend $87,800 more on private school.

It’s not just straight-up numbers, either. It also depends exactly where colleges spend their money. Private colleges spend more than two and a half times as public colleges on salaries. However, they also spend less on grants for students.

Student Tuition Against General Operating Costs

Students’ tuition has not historically been a significant element of income for colleges. In 2000, tuition only made up about 29.2% of revenue for public higher education organizations on average. However, over the years, this has changed dramatically.

In 2018, tuition made up 46.6% of public universities’ revenue stream on average. Additionally, in the last decade, tuition has grown by more than 25% on average. It also seems to continue to grow, making it very frustrating for people who just want to get an education. This may be one of the reasons more people have started to look into alternate schooling options.


As you can see, although it’s definitely true that college tuition is a complicated topic, it’s also one that people can certainly talk about. If you’re going into college, you know someone who’s going into college, or you just want to have a bit more education about the process, learning more about college tuition is a must, and this is an interesting starting point.

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