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Why is college so expensive?

Art by Femi Henry-Chia

Many will argue that “you can’t put a price on an education,” which in a literal sense is wrong. While I do agree that you can’t fully put a value on the knowledge you gain, the impact will be felt in your family’s wallet for years. I’m not going to argue that college isn’t worth it, as someone with a bachelor’s degree earns $32,000 more per year than someone with a high school diploma, along with many other associated benefits such as lower poverty rates. This value has only been increasing in recent years with stagnating wages, a rapidly rising cost of living, and the decline of unions. However, college is not a good route for many students, and there are other options out there. But because of the ever-increasing advantages of a college degree, many students see it as their only route after graduating high school. Being one of those students hoping to gain a college education, and having recently applied to college, one thing that is very obvious both during and after the process is the inflated cost of college. The expense of a college education is no secret, but why is it so utterly out of reach for so many?

The number of students attending college in recent history has grown tremendously. The majority of high school graduates now head off to college, with 67% of the class of 2017 enrolling in college. This is a significant increase from 60% in 1990 and 49% in 1980. The price of college has also greatly increased over this time. The average cost of tuition and room and board, when adjusted for inflation, was $6,452 for a public university in 1980. By 2012 this price went up to $17,474, marking a 270% increase. This trend stands true for the already more expensive private colleges where tuition and room and board would have cost $14,938 in 1980 when adjusted for inflation and $35,074 in 2012, marking a 230% increase. As someone who is heading off to college soon, seeing this insane increase in the price of college makes me question why colleges could possibly need to increase tuition by so much.

Public colleges are the most affordable and equitable way to obtain a degree, but as discussed previously, they aren’t that affordable. In the UC system, the total estimated cost for a California resident living on campus is $36,700, and at a CSU, the cost is $25,386. This inflated price for a supposedly “affordable” education can be attributed to many factors, but one of the most significant contributing factors is how state governments have cut funding for higher education. This cut in funding has led colleges to raise tuition and focus on attracting out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than their in-state counterparts. Colleges have also seen an increase in the size and spending of their administrative departments. In the UC system between the school years of 2012-13 and 2015-16, administrative spending increased by 28% in the Office of the President, with ten executives making a combined total of $10 million in 2014. This trend is true for both public and private institutions.

For many students, the cost of college is unaffordable, but luckily, most colleges offer both merit and need-based aid, along with grants from both the federal and state governments. In the 2007-08 school year, the average full-time undergraduate student received $12,740 in aid, which, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. In the UC system, students receive an average of $17,000 per year in grants and scholarships. This allows some student’s financial aid packages to cover most or all of their college expenses. Despite this, many students find the amount of aid that they are given to be far below the cost of college, forcing 70% of college students to take out loans. In the US, a graduate of a four-year university’s average student loan debt is $29,900, with 14% of parents taking an average of $37,200 in parent PLUS loans. There is over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt among more than 44 million borrowers in the US. This is significantly more than in the recent past. In 1993 49% of students took an average of $9,320 in student loan debt. Most college loans follow a 10-year repayment plan, but on average, it takes 18.5 years to pay off with an average monthly payment of $393. Because of student loan payments, many young Americans are forced to spend most of their disposable income on student loan payments, making it very difficult to build up savings.

After reading through this article, you are most likely very angry about the cost of education and worried about how you will afford it, which brings me to my final point: Why do we even pay for college? The US is one of few developed nations that charges such a high cost for a college education. Countries such as Denmark, Germany, France, Egypt, and many others charge no tuition at public universities. The other developed nations that do charge tuition have much lower costs than the US, with Italy charging an average of $1,750 a year and Belgium at around $1,060. Eliminating tuition at public universities would cost about $63 billion a year, which is very little when considering the $69 billion that already goes to a mix of Federal Grants and loans. President Biden has plans to make public universities free for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as it would be opposed by Senate Republicans who would inevitably enact a filibuster blocking it from ever being passed.

Editor's note: The author has provided links for further reading on this topic, listed below.

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