Sell the house? Rent out a room? These are some of the ways Americans pay for college

  • The average cost of an undergraduate degree in the U.S., including room and board and fees rose 169% between 1980 and 2019.
  • Families are taking a range of steps, from selling their home to renting out a spare bedroom to help cover soaring college costs
  • Free community college and more initiatives that substitute scholarships and other aid for loans could help reduce student loan debt

Joyelle Tilton's youngest son, Dylan, wanted to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst or Boston. 

But as an out-of-state student, tuition would cost roughly $36,000, more than twice the tab they'd pay if they lived in Massachusetts. 

So last August, just before Dylan started his junior year in high school, they packed their bags, said goodbye to relatives in Nevada and moved to Massachusetts.

"Luckily, my husband was a virtual worker and we can live anywhere, so we gave up our home in Las Vegas,'' says Tilton, 47. 

It may seem like a dramatic step, but for Tilton, moving beat plunging her family into debt to pay for her son's college education. 

"We’re not willing to take out loans. I’m willing to make sacrifices in other areas,'' she says. "My husband is still paying off his school loan and probably will till the day he dies.''  

How much is college tuition?

Selling the house. Tapping retirement funds. Renting out a spare room.

Those are just some of the ways families are paying ever-mounting college costs. And that's not counting the decisions made by students themselves, who besides working their way through school, are joining the National Guard, opting for community college, or applying to cheaper universities overseas to afford tuition – if they choose to go to college at all. 

(From left to right) Dylan Tilton, 17, Colby Tilton, 19 and Brie Tilton, 25. Dylan and Colby have worked and earned scholarships to cover college tuition. Their parents have also relocated to help Dylan get in-state tuition.

The soaring costs of a college education are "going to lead both to fewer people going and fewer people graduating,'' says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 

The average cost of an undergraduate degree in the U.S., including room and board and fees, soared 169%, from $9,307 to $25,004, between 1980 and 2019, according to the Georgetown University Center's analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education. Between the 2008/09 and 2018/19 school years, tuition alone rose from an average of $17,045 to $24,623. 

As President Joe Biden considers whether to cancel some student debt, we must also ponder ways to keep students and their families from accumulating such a heavy financial burden in the first place.

It may not be economically feasible or politically palatable to make four-year college education free to all who want it. And it can be argued that as stressful as it may be, working a part-time job while studying might make the degree that much more rewarding.  

Student debt solutions:Free college or federal student loans? These alternatives could help solve student debt crisis

Biden offers to cancel some student debt:Biden administration proposes canceling $6B in student debt for 200,000 people in settlement

But financial aid guidelines could be more generous, recognizing that even families with incomes in the mid-six figures might struggle to foot a five-figure tuition bill, plus room and board, annually for at least four years.

And while universities certainly have salaries to pay, expenses to cover, and amenities to provide, a triple-digit increase in overall college costs since the 1980s – along with an average annual tuition rate equal to almost a third of the average American's salary – is unsustainable. At the very least it needs to be justified.

"I don’t think any of us are prepared for the cost of higher education, and I don’t know what the answer is," said Tilton. "I don’t know how the government fixes it.’’

How do people afford college without loans? 

(From left to right) Aidan J Fite, 19, Tiffany and Benjamin D. Fite, and Ethan R. Fite. The Fite family's sons chose to go to school in Europe where college is often less expensive than in the U.S., and they can avoid incurring large amounts of debt.

Tilton and her husband Chad, 50, always made it clear to their three children that they'd have to help pay for college.

"Our kids knew they needed to get scholarships because it had gotten way more expensive than when my husband and I were in college,'' she says.

Labor shortage leads to more jobs for some:College grads are snaring high-paying jobs. How the labor shortage made way for better benefits.

Is college necessary?Middle class, minus debt: Apprenticeships, certificates offer low-cost options to college

While Brie, 25, decided not to go to college, Colby, 19, hoped to get an ROTC scholarship to help fund his education. When that didn't come through, he signed up for the National Guard in Massachusetts which will cover his tuition at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

He'll be a freshman there in the fall after taking a year to do basic training, she says. Academic scholarships will pay for his room and board. He's also saved $17,000 from his job at Target.

The couple's youngest son, Dylan, 17, also works at Target and has a goal of saving the same amount. But after failing a hearing test, joining the National Guard was not an option.

So the family relocated to Wareham, Massachusetts, to establish residency even though Dylan will be a high school senior this year and has yet to be accepted at the state university.

Tilton is confident he will get in, and that the family's move was worth it. "He's a straight-A student, works ... and did really well on the SATs,'' she says.

When Tilton and her husband filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the portal used to determine federal, and often state and individual schools'  financial aid, Tilton said they were told they should be able to contribute $30,000 a year toward their son's college costs. 

"We can’t,'' she says. "My husband doesn’t make even $100,000 a year.’’

So for now, the family is living in a long-term Airbnb rental. Dylan is applying for various scholarships, and Tilton and her husband will remain in Massachusetts even after he's gained official state residency if he needs to live at home and commute to campus to save money.

"Even with us moving, he'll probably still have to take out some student loans'' to cover the cost of books and other fees, she says. 

How do people afford college without loans?

Tiffany Fite's children made a different type of move, enrolling in schools in Europe where universities can be more affordable.   

She and her husband, Benjamin, began earnestly looking at options in 2018, as the glossy brochures sent by U.S. colleges began to tumble in. 

Fite, a consultant and her husband, an attorney,

hoped their sons, Aidan, 19, and Ethan, 20, would be able to enjoy their high school years without constantly worrying about whether they got into certain schools.

How to save for college:Fintechs launch crypto, cash-back rewards for college to help parents save for their kids

Relief for students victimized financially by colleges:Billions in student loans erased for students preyed upon by Corinthian Colleges; most relief yet by White House

Fite says they save so diligently that she and her husband were able to take off work for two years and crisscross the country with their sons in an RV.

"If there was one financial lesson we wanted our boys to take away from us... is always live below your means,'' Fite says.

The family opened 529 savings accounts but knew they won't cover the $100,000 they'd likely have to pay for each son to earn a bachelor's degree.

"We wouldn't co-sign for loans, and we would not borrow against our retirement or our future for their college,'' says Fite.

They weighed the cost of their sons living at home and attending Boise State, which is literally next door to their Idaho home. They priced out community college. "And then we found out about the option for going abroad,'' she says.

The boys took a gap year after high school, partly to work and save.Aidan will start a three-year Bachelor of Arts program in archaeology in August at the University of Pecs, Hungary, where tuition is $5,000 a year. Ethan will enter his second year at Anglo American University in Prague, where annual tuition is $8,500.   

Inflation and student loans:Inflation is complicating Biden's student loan plan, 4 states hold primaries: 5 Things podcast

Dartmouth financial aid to be loan free:Dartmouth College eliminating loans from its financial aid packages

Their parents will pay $45,000 to $50,000 for each son's overall college tuition, and they also plan to match the $5,000 of income their children earn from working.

"It took a lot of work on our end to look at the other options,'' says Fite, "but (it was) worth it.'' 

What is the best way to pay for college?

Apprenticeships and certifications are gaining traction as more people look at the high cost of college and ask, 'Why bother?'

A recent Gallup poll found that 46% of parents said they would prefer their child seek a different credential than a bachelor’s degree. And only 56% of adults under age 30 who went to college felt that the benefits were greater than the costs, according to a Federal Reserve study released in May.  

As an educational consultant, Carolyn Johnson helps young people navigate the maze of applying to college, including applying for scholarships and financial aid.

Her daughters, Alison, 23, and Amy, 21, a graduate of and current student at Fordham University, respectively, have received scholarships and each has roughly $20,000 in loans.  

Still, to cover the college costs that remained, Johnson and her husband sold their home and tapped their retirement funds. "My husband figures he'll work until he's 70,'' she says.

They sold their house partly because it was becoming financially draining to deal with the damage from several floods. But using the money to help cover tuition was also a priority, she says.

“I’m in the business so I know education is the foundation and the stepping stone,’’ she says. “We’ve lost material things we were attached to and we learned those things don’t last, but education lasts forever.’’

Why should colleges not be free?

Some schools have started to offer financial assistance to a broader array of households. Stanford, for instance, in 2020 raised the income threshold for students to get scholarships that cover their full tuition to $150,000 from $125,000. Households earning less than $75,000 have their room and board, along with tuition covered.  

Dartmouth College, meanwhile, said that starting this summer, it will replace loans in its financial aid offerings with broader scholarship grants. 

But both of those schools are extremely selective, meaning only a small number of students can benefit from that assistance.

Ohio State meanwhile is offering an option that could benefit a wider array of students with its Scarlet and Gray Advantage, a program it said will begin a pilot this fall. It sets students up for a debt-free undergraduate education through a combination of scholarships, grants, job opportunities, and family contributions.  

Such expansions of debt-free aid are models worth emulating at even more schools that can afford – or develop partnerships that allow them to be – more generous. 

Free community college could also provide a debt-free entry point to higher education, though for now, that recommendation has been pared from Biden's Build Back Better legislation which has yet to be approved by Congress. 

Many community colleges have transfer agreements with particular colleges or universities if students take certain courses and earn the required credits.  

Care still has to be taken however to ensure a two-tier system doesn't become cemented, where lower-income and students of color remain concentrated in two-year schools, while four-year colleges primarily educate students who are more affluent and white, says Carnevale.

In the meantime, if families gain a clearer understanding of what majors or schools offer the greatest employment and earning potential, competition could grow between colleges, slowing the dizzying uptick in tuition, he says.

Does your 401(k) stack up?:The average American has $141,542 in a 401(k) account. How does your balance compare?

College inclusion:'Completely different from high school': How colleges are making space for LGBTQ students

"In any market, in any industry, once you're able to measure value in great detail ... you've started down the road to cost competition,'' he says adding that while the data exists through tools like the College Scorecard, more families need to be made aware of it.

Paying for college with a room to rent

For now, Michelle St. Onge plans to rent out a spare bedroom in her home to help pay for her youngest son, Ethan, 18, to attend Clarkson University in the fall.

"We’re making the leap based on the return on investment we think we’re going to get after (graduation), but we still have to figure out a way to pay for it now,'' says St. Onge who lives in Peru, New York. "I’m a single mom and the only one helping him with his tuition.’’

Once Ethan becomes a sophomore, they’ll look at additional financial options, like his possibly becoming a resident adviser to reduce the cost of room and board.

 He also may have to apply for some student loans.

But that's down the road.

“This first year, we’ve figured it out,’’ she says. “One year at a time.’’