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Industry Reports

College Tuition Has Risen by Over 600%, 3x the Rate of Inflation, Last 40 Years

The cost of going to college has risen by over 600% over the last 4 decades, making higher education increasingly unaffordable for many.

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By Scott Winstead

college tuition vs inflation

If the cost of going to college had risen at the rate of inflation over the last 40 years, students would pay an average of $10,493 for a year of tuition, room, and board at a public college or $23,740 for the same at a private university.

Of course, we all know that’s not the case.

The latest report from the nonprofit group College Board shows that the average annual cost of attending a public college (tuition, fees, and room & board) is now between $24,030 for in-state students to $41,920 for out-of-state students — in the 1983-84 school year, the cost was just $3,430.

For students at private universities, the numbers are even more astounding. A year at the average private college will set students back $56,190. Just 40 years ago, the cost was just $7,760.

In other words, the cost of going to college has increased by as much as 624% in some cases compared to 40 years ago — over 3 times the rate of inflation during the last 4 decades.

Why Have Things Changed?

You might be wondering why this study focuses specifically on the last 40 years.

When you look at historical data on tuition costs in the United States, the 1980s were a major turning point. During the 1980s, the cost of college essentially doubled, increasing 141% for private universities and 99% for public colleges.

In fact, the 1980s saw some of the largest year-over-year tuition rate increases of any time period in history.

In 1986, William Bennett, then Secretary of Education, raised concerns about escalating college costs, accusing institutions of “defrauding students and exploiting the American public.” He also cautioned that the rapidly increasing default rate on student loans was unsustainable.

More Young Adults Opt Out

As the cost of college has continued to increase at an alarming rate, a growing number of young adults have decided that it’s simply not worth the cost.

A recent survey found that only 36% of US adults say they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, down from 57% in 2015.

Over the last decade, enrollment across all two and four-year universities has dropped by around 3 million students.

But here’s the kicker — the cost of tuition has risen so much during that same 10-year period that total annual revenue for US colleges from tuition and fees actually increased by around $7 billion, despite fewer students attending.

The pattern of escalating tuition costs and student debt for conventional college education shows no signs of changing.

Currently, the average borrower has nearly $39,000 in student loan debt. Recent figures indicate that total U.S. student loan debt has reached about $1.77 trillion.

And as we previously reported, the idea that students can work their way through college has become unrealistic amid years of stagnant wages coupled with astronomical rises in tuition and fees.

We’re reaching a breaking point, and the sustainability of higher education may very well hinge on addressing these issues.

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