The Rising Cost of College in the U.S.

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by visualcapitalist

average cost of college in the U.S.

The Briefing

  • Since 1980, college tuition and fees in the U.S. have increased by 1,200%
  • Because of the shift to online classes, 2020 saw the lowest tuition increase in the last four decades

The Rising Cost of College in America

The average cost of getting a college degree has soared relative to overall inflation over the last few decades.

Since 1980, college tuition and fees are up 1,200%, while the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all items has risen by only 236%.

The Average Cost of College Over Time

Back in 1980, it cost $1,856 to attend a degree-granting public school in the U.S., and $10,227 to attend a private school after adjusting for inflation.

Since then, the figures have skyrocketed. Here’s how college tuition and the CPI have both changed since 1980:

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. News
Note: Tuition and fees are in constant 2018-19 dollars. For public schools, in-state tuition and fees are used. All CPI % change values calculated for the month of January.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest year-over-year change in college tuition and fees was recorded in June 1982 at 14.2%— and over that same time period, overall inflation was up 6.6%.

On the other hand, November 2020 saw the lowest year-over-year change in the average cost of college at 0.6%, mainly as a result of the shift to online classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, some schools are offering discounts to students, and some are even canceling scheduled tuition increases entirely in a bid to remain attractive.

Why is the Cost of College Rising?

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons behind the rapid surge in the cost of education, a few factors could help explain why U.S. colleges hike their prices.

  • Decrease in State Funding
    State funding per student fell from $8,800 (2007-08) to $8,200 (2018-19), while the share of tuition in college revenues increased.
  • Increase in Demand
    The demand for a college education has increased over time. Between 2000-2018, undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 26%.
  • Increase in Federal Aid
    According to a study from the New York Fed, every $1 in subsidized federal student loans increases college tuition by $0.60. Student loan debt has doubled since the 2008 recession.

Furthermore, the costs of providing education, known as institutional expenditures, have also escalated over time. These include spending on instruction, student services, administrative support, operations, and maintenance—all of which are critical to the student experience.

With student debt at unprecedented levels and ongoing public debates surrounding the rising costs of education, it’s uncertain how college tuition will evolve. However, given the onset of virtual classes, further hikes to college tuitions may be on hold for the foreseeable future.

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