It is almost universally held that education is important for the advancement of individuals, economies and societies. That education, however, comes with increasing costs which are creating significant challenges for students and their families.
The cost increases for college tuition have been staggering. From 1982 to 2012, tuition increased 167% more than overall inflation at private four-year institutions and 257% over inflation for in-state students at public four-year schools. Recent costs continue that trend, with the 2011-2012 cost of private colleges outpacing inflation by 14% over the prior five years and in-state tuition at public colleges rising 20% over inflation.
There are a number of factors that have driven up the cost of a traditional college degree. The nonprofit Delta Cost Project analyzes college and university spending trends in the belief that spending can be contained without sacrificing access or educational quality. Public universities spent 13% more per student in 2010 than in 2000 (adjusted for overall inflation) on non-instructional activities such as admissions, career counseling and student organizations. Activities directly related to instruction rose 8% (per student, adjusted for inflation) for the same period, while other support such as libraries, computing and administration rose 5%. Many older buildings need costly updating or to be replaced altogether and operations and maintenance spending was up 9% for most of the decade. However, that spending plummeted 17% in public institutions in 2010 alone, creating a huge backlog going forward.
Until recently, when universities have more aggressively developed online courses and used other teaching technologies, there have been no economies of scale in higher education. Traditionally, more students meant proportionally more professors, facilities and support services. And subsidies from state governments to universities have been declining. From 2000 to 2010, large public research universities received 22% less per student, adjusted for inflation. Tuition revenues per student, which were $3,000 to $5,000 less than public funds per student a decade ago, are now nearly equal to public funds. The recent recession saw even bigger cuts in public funding to community colleges.
Some point to the easy availability of student loans as a major reason for tuition increases. In 1992 government-backed student loans became available without parent income restrictions. The growth in student loans is remarkably similar to the increases in tuition, with student loans outstanding increasing over 500% from 1999 to 2011. According to the Department of Education, 45% of bachelor’s degree graduates in 1993 borrowed money, including loans from family members. Two thirds of 2008 graduates borrowed from the government or private lenders, not including borrowing from family members. The average debt for bachelor degree graduates who borrow is now $23,300 and anecdotes abound of graduates with no hope of ever repaying student loans with their liberal arts degrees. Unbeknownst to most borrowers, student loans are one of the few forms of debt that are not discharged in bankruptcy.
Strategies for keeping the cost of a college degree low are gaining attention. For those who need time to explore their interests, employment may be more effective than the expense of college. Choosing a school and a degree based on potential future earnings can make the cost more manageable. A recent annual study by Sallie Mae, the country’s largest student lender, showed that 14% more students lived at home or with a relative while they attended college from three years ago. More students attended two-year colleges, either to pursue specific programs to prepare for the workforce or to later transfer to four-year colleges. And more parents and students than in the prior four studies indicated they made their college decisions based on what they can afford to pay. In 2013, 67% of families eliminated colleges from consideration based on cost compared to 56% in 2009.
But families continue to find ways to pay for college, with parents who felt a degree was an investment in the future increasing to 85% in 2013 from 80% in three years. The recession has taken its toll, with the share of college costs paid by parents falling to 27% from 37% in 2009. At the same time, the slack has been taken up by an increase by grants and scholarships, which increased to cover 30% of college costs last year from 23% in 2009.
Of course, paying for education is not a new challenge. J. M. Creighton, my wife’s great-grandfather, was a prominent but not particularly wealthy architect in Phoenix in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. J. M. managed to send seven of his eight children (one became a rancher) to four years of college outside of Arizona, with four going on to graduate degrees from Harvard and McGill. His records show the total cost of all that education was only $26,244. But in today’s dollars (adjusting only for inflation, not the greater increase in college tuition) that amounts to roughly $447,000. Even then, the cost increase was notable; one of the younger sons’ costs to attend Occidental and Harvard were more than twice that of his brother who was eight years older.
J. M. Creighton’s letter to his children, written in 1933 after they had all completed their studies, is still applicable to families who value and pursue higher education. “The above cost has been but a small part of the struggle and perseverance of our children in this great work of preparation for life’s responsibilities in a world where knowledge is power. We have all pulled together in the matter of bearing each other’s burdens, during some very trying experiences, covering a period of more than twenty years.”