How to reasonably estimate college costs in 2020?

Not sure this is a GQ, but I’ll give it a shot.

I’ve been socking money away aggressively in 529s for children for a few years now. I feel pretty good about how much I’ve been able to save, but I am having a very hard time figuring out if it is actually enough. Estimates for the cost of a 4-year education in 15 or so years are all over the map. Anywhere from $10K/year to $100K/year.

Sure, there is a huge amount of uncertainty in play here, but not only can I not find an accepted figure, I cannot find the reasoning used for any of these estimates. Many of them do specify public/private and area of country, so it’s not just the simple variation in the pool.

So, I guess my poorly formed questions are:

  1. Is there a consensus estimate, or model?
  2. If not, is there a consensu range of values that seems reasonable?
  3. If not, how do financial professionals advise their clients – how do they plan for the future?
  4. (Moving out of GQ) – if you have a 529 and have thought about this question, what numbers are you using?

My cut and paste is blown up, but here are links to a few calculators -,,


no one wants to give it a try?

It depends on what type of school they want to go to and whether they will get some type of scholarship, take out loans, or work while they are in school. The full bill for your typical private school is likely to be about 40 - 50K a year per child by then. Public school will be all over the map but figure about half that.

I think you’re underestimating the current cost of college. My alma mater is already about $45,000 per year, including tuition, fees, room and board.

I understand there are schools at the high end of cost. I went to one (on scholarship) but some private schools are much cheaper than others. I have pretty decent knowledge of colleges and was making a guess somewhere in the middle.

Thanks for the replies. For this exercise, assume no scholarship, work, or other financial support of any kind.

On what basis do you predict 40-50K? Not at all disagreeing (or agreeing), but I am trying to understand the assumptions. Is that based on a current cost average of x? In other words, are you taking today’s prices and adding on a certain percentage?

I did a web search using Google and found a study from the College Board that said that the average total cost for four-year private nonprofit institutions was $29,026 during the 2004-5 academic year ($12,127 for four-year public institutions). Other articles suggest that college costs rise at a rate higher than the consumer price index, perhaps at twice the rate. Based on those two numbers, you should be able to estimate college costs for fourteen years from now.

A press release about the College Board study is here and the study itself can be downloaded here. (Note that the study is in a PDF file.)

A lot can happen in 15 years. Some experts believe that the current trend of skyrocketing prices is unsustainable and that the current system with US Higher Education is similar to Detroit car makers in the 60’s. Top American unis have virtually no competition around the globe so they can justify exorbiant charges. But university reform in Europe and better quality universitys in SE Asia might do much to blunt this rise in the near future. Or not.

I would be very hesistant to make an estimate of what it would be like 15 years in the future. $50,000 seems definately too low for me. Based on $30,000 for 2005 and a conservative 7%, your looking at a tripling in 15 years. Based on 10%, it’s a quadrupling.

“I would be very hesistant to make an estimate of what it would be like 15 years in the future.” Oh, me too!! But I have no choice, I can’t not save at all because of the uncertainty around the goal. Hesitant or not, I need to pick some number.

Dewey, thanks very much for the link. I think I’ll play with some linear trends based on the last 30 years of data they included, and see how it looks.
I’m surprised this thread doesn’t have more replies. I know I can’t be the only person with young children planning for their future, I can’t be the only Doper to be struggling with this question.

I’m in the same boat. I picked the most expensive public state school in my state, and used that as the benchmark ($12000/yr). I then figured on 10% tuition increase per year (I’m not sure where I got that now, but a google search a while back was the start). That would be about $40,000 in 2020.

When the time comes, anything more expensive than the current tuition at the most expensive in-state school will have to be paid for by the kid!

Here’s a good article about this topic: Four Ways to Survive the Cost of College

Note- the link from a website that sells investment advice, etc. But, the article is good.


I took the information from Dewey, which has a table for average cost for the last 30 years, both public and private. I extroplated a trendline in Excel. It’s a simple linear extrapolation, which is the weakest part (it should probably be an exponential curve). But using that, I can project the same rate into the future.

Then, I looked at some other known facts. Schools in the Northeast tend to be x% higher, so I just added that in. I looked at the elite Ivy’s, calculated the percentage difference in today’s rates, and projected that into the future.

Seems to be about the best I can do. I suppose as long as I reexamine my assumption every few years, it’s a reasonable approach.

FYI – in 2002, I extrapolated to 15K for public, 38K for private, 50K for NE schools, 55K for the elite Ivys. That includes room/tuition/board.