Why Is College Tuition Rising So Much? And What Can You Do?By Mary Bromley on March 5, 2018
If you're a parent of a small child and look forward to the day when you can send them off to get a college degree, prepare yourself.
While we expect the cost of living to increase over time, the rate at which the price of a college education has gone up is alarming.
(Note: Before you despair over ever going to college, read the end of this article in which we suggest simple ways to minimize the rising costs of tuition.)
Looking at the big picture, it's easy to say, "Of course, the general cost of living has been going up for years, why should the cost of education be any different?"
Housing. Food. Gas. Medical care. Insurance costs.
All impacted by inflation, some costs have risen faster than others. Wages and income for the large majority of Americans have not kept up.
Even with the squeeze felt by most of the population, the increase in costs for a lot of goods and services has been, for the most part, measured.
Higher Education, Higher Dollars
The rise in higher education costs, though, are anything but measured.
Ray Franke, a University of Massachusetts, Boston, professor of education agrees. He says, "If you look at the long-term trend, college tuition has been rising almost six percent above the rate of inflation."
Between 1994 and 2014, tuition fees at a four-year public university have risen 110%.
For a private school, four-year tuition in 2015 was $134,600. In 18 years, that could surge to $323,900.
For a public education, it is much the same. A four-year, in-state school will see an increase from $39,400 to $94,000 and two-year community and private institutions will rise from $77,400 to $186,400 for that degree.
In less than 20 years, that will be a jump of almost 140% across the board.
So what's going on here?
How does something that once rose at a snail's pace skyrocket, on average, faster than almost every other consumer service?
Much like the many private hours of study and hard work it takes to earn a degree, there's a lot more happening below the surface than many realize.
Writing a yearly check that equals the cost of a new car doesn't sit well with many. At least with the automobile, you know you're getting an engine, four tires and the ability to get from point A to B and back.
But what about the tuition? What goes into that yearly chunk of money and why does it seem to keep taking a bigger and bigger bite from everyone's wallet?
Supply and Demand, Demand, Demand
Once upon a time, heading off to college and attaining a four-year degree was a luxury. More often than not, a high school diploma was all that you would need to enter the job market and build a very comfortable career.
That is no longer the case. Universities know that.
Going back to 1950, 7.3% of the male population and 5.2% of the female population had completed four or more years of college. In 2016, those numbers had climbed to 33.2% of males and 33.7% of females.
That seems like a steady, methodical progression. In the same time frame though, the world, and what it takes to get ahead and be successful, have changed dramatically.
So too has the perception of a college education.
Once viewed as places that only the elite had the resource and reason to attend, the job market of today has made it seem a requirement to meet any level of success.
This changing market allows colleges and universities to lay out whatever tuition fees they deem fit and still pull large pools of ready and willing students.
But don't universities have to compete for those students? And if so, wouldn't that mean lower tuition?
While that seems a viable presumption, landing a student nowadays takes a lot more than just being Mom or Dad's alma mater.
The Modern University
Today's college or university is not only a place of higher learning. Gone are the days of a handful of buildings cobbled together around a quad.
As of 2017, an estimated 20 million people attend college in the US. That number could grow to over 22 million by 2026.
For elite universities looking for elite students, the margins are far tighter. And to lure that top talent, the amenities schools offer have become as important as their degree plans.
Seton Hall professor Robert Kelchen agrees. He says, "Schools are all going after a fairly small pool of students who are high achieving and high income and able to pay much of their own way to college. They're trying to build more amenities—so you hear about the rock climbing walls and the lazy rivers."
More amenities equals more expenses, and more expenses equals higher tuition.
What about students that may not fall in that upper echelon of talent and money? Well, universities want them too, but for different reasons.
An Education in Debt
With degrees becoming more and more a requirement to get ahead in today's society, what are students and parents who can't afford to pay out of pocket to do?
Seek student aid.
As of 2015, there was over $180 billion in available financial aid for undergraduates. Of that, 67% was in federal grants and loans.
While federal aid has been valuable to those who otherwise would not be able to afford higher education, it has created something of a paradox.
Students accept whatever aid they can get, potentially failing to weigh the long-term financial risk once they earn that degree. The thinking goes that the debt will get paid back in time once they get a well-paying job.
The higher institutions, for their part, understand that with someone else footing the bill, they have very little accountability to the student to keep their costs in line. The institution will get paid no matter their tuition and fees.
Once that student does graduate, the burden becomes theirs.
It's a heavy one too.
Currently, student loan debt in the U.S. is close to exceeding $1.5 trillion dollars.
Compare that to the over $750 billion owed in credit cards.
The Well Runs Dry
Speaking of debt, another element at play is the financial situation that many state governments are facing.
Since coming out of the Great Recession at the end of the last decade, many state houses find themselves unwilling or unable to provide funding for public institutions.
According to a 2017 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding by states for two- and four-year colleges have decreased by almost $9 billion from 2008, after inflation adjustments.
The report also showed that in that same period, 44 states had decreased their funding for higher education, with 18 states reducing funding by 20% or more.
For private institutions, the story is the same. Subsidies dry up among a sea of penny-pinching measures nationwide. Although the wealthiest institutions have fared better as they tend to have a larger pool of income to pull from.
Regardless, many places are continuing to expand, particularly in the public sector. Adding non-faculty staff to mainly support student services, new building or renovation projects or the lifestyle-geared amenities, the battle for students has never been fiercer.
Students, however, through higher tuition and fees, are bearing a lot more of the costs.
The Books Hit Back
Tuition is not the only story here.
What about the actual day-to-day costs?
There are several ancillary items a student should account for when attending two- and four-year institutions. On their own, the increases in these smaller expenses may seem nominal compared to actual tuition. But as the bills add up, they can often break a student's budget by the end of the school year.
Room and Board
Some institutions include rooming and meal plans in their tuition and fees, but most don't. Convenience is the clear upside to on-campus living, with most of what a student would need usually within walking distance and with various meal plans factored into the final charges.
But the costs can be high.
Room and board averages between $10,000 and $12,000 for an undergraduate, with private schools at the higher end of the spectrum.
With many colleges and universities requiring a student to live on campus for at least the first year or two, the cost will be unavoidable early on.
Should a student live off-campus, the base cost itself could be less than an on-campus option. Yet living off-campus comes with its own set of fees.
Deposits, full year leases and the lost convenience of not needing transportation can make on- and off-campus housing a wash.
Living away from the school also means that unless the student secures a stand-alone meal plan at the on-campus dining hall, all meals will be out of pocket.
Books and Supplies
Books and supplies, much like everything else, hit the pocketbook heavier than they once did.
New college-level textbooks have seen a considerable increase in price over the past decade, rising almost $25 in less than ten years. Fortunately for students, used book prices have remained stable, increasing by only a couple of dollars over the same period.
With the expanding intensity of some academic courses, students, especially those in technical fields, can see higher supply costs due to the nature of the course work.
Overall, an undergraduate can expect to include $1,000 to $1,500 a year for their course materials in the overall cost of their schooling.
This expense can vary widely based on a student's circumstances. It can become a burden for commuter students or students who attend a self-contained university but choose to keep a car on campus.
Parking fees, gas and the occasional trip home quickly adds up with an average undergraduate spending around $1,000 in a school year. Commuter students can easily exceed $2,000, depending on the student's situation.
For students who choose to go without private transportation, the public version can be considerably less, often with student discounts playing a factor.
Tally up those additional items and the cost of a year away at a college or university comes into full view. Upwards of $15,000 a year for items that have little to do with sitting in a lecture hall.
So What Can You Do?
At this point, you're probably thinking you may struggle in affording to go to college or to send your children to college. Thankfully, that's not the case. Universities are all too aware of the rising costs of attending school and are creating numerous ways to cut down on costs.
For example, almost every university now offers online classes and degrees. By taking classes online and not living on campus, you can dramatically cut down on the expense of getting a degree. You eliminate housing costs, transportation costs, meals plans and all the other expenses that accompany getting a degree the traditional way.
If you're a non-traditional student who wouldn't be living on campus anyway, online classes are even more valuable. They allow you to earn your degree more inexpensively and according to your own schedule. If you can't afford to take a full load of classes, you can go at a slower pace and take classes as you can afford them.
Additionally, many businesses now make it possible to attend school while still working for the company. Even though this may take a bit longer than a traditional program, this allows individuals to get a degree while avoiding large amounts of debt. Some businesses will even pay some portion of tuition costs as part of their ongoing education efforts.
Finally, it's important to consider how NOT attending college affects overall earning potential. It's been demonstrated time and again that those who have a degree earn significantly more than those who don't. If you're smart with the way you earn your degree (online classes, etc.), you can achieve your maximum earning potential without incurring crushing amounts of debt.
Is college tuition rising? Yes, there's no doubt about it.
But, you can still get a degree at an affordable rate. As technology develops, there are more and more ways to take classes AND minimize expenses.
All it takes is a little creativity.