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Why Is College So Expensive?

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

College costs have been rising year over year, at a rate much higher than wage increases. The cost of higher education is a hot-button topic each election year, with college loan debt being a major concern. Despite the seriousness of the college cost and college debt crisis, prices still continue to climb.

Every year, since 1978, college tuition fees have been increasing exponentially. During the academic year 2001-2002, the average cost of tuition fees for private schools was $16,987 and $3,583 for in-state tuition fees for public colleges. Today, the average cost of attending a private school will set you back by $41,411 a year for private colleges and $11,171 a year for public institutions. That is an eye-popping 144% and 212% growth for private and public colleges, respectively.

During the academic year 2020-2021, students finally found a little relief. Tuition fees actually decreased by 5% for private schools and an average of 4% for public colleges. That was the first time a decline in tuition fees occurred since 1978. Though this might sound like good news, the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic made many colleges suspend their year-to-year tuition fee hike, so a decrease in costs is not likely to be a trend.

The reasons for skyrocketing college costs are varied, but here are some of the most notable factors:


The demand for college education was on the rise for many years, which brought about a market for for-profit colleges. As a matter of fact, enrollment in for-profit colleges grew by 225% between 1998 and 2008. With this record-breaking enrollment growth, for-profit and non-profit schools were competing to attract students, and increased their marketing budgets accordingly. The trend continues, and most high school juniors and seniors receive enormous amounts of marketing mail, emails, and texts from colleges across the country.

Campus Enhancement

In an effort to attract students, colleges are now focusing on non-academic factors. Many colleges today boast state-of-the art athletic facilities, on-campus recreation areas, varied dining options, upgraded dormitories, improved technology and remodeled buildings. Although enhanced social experiences and facilities do not necessarily correlate to a school's academic excellence, they do play an important role in attracting students.

Faculty and administrators

Attracting world-class faculty and administrators improves the reputation and desirability of a school. Colleges often refer to their low faculty to student ratio as evidence of academic excellence, but that also translates to an increased budget.

Lower State Funding Passes the Burden to Students

Despite the demand for higher education, funding from the state and federal government has declined over the years. Public universities across the country have had to manage dwindling government resources while providing high caliber academic and social experiences.

Despite the increased cost of education, college is still a wise investment for many students. The unemployment rate is much lower for people with a college degree, and salary potential is often significantly higher. Finding an affordable college that results in a good return on investment is key.

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