Tuition is increasing at alarming rates at US public universities

Doe Memorial Library at the University of California-Berkeley.
Doe Memorial Library at the University of California-Berkeley.
Image: Flickr/Sharat Ganapati, CC BY 2.0
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Public higher education in the US is not in good shape. As states slowly chip away at education funding, tuition fees at public colleges across the country are creeping up, and costs are increasingly being passed to students and their families.

A report released Jan. 7 from educational advocacy group Young Invincibles highlights the extent of the problem. Data compiled in the report show that the average share of college fees and tuition paid by a student’s family has jumped from 36% in pre-recession 2008 to 50% in 2014. Meanwhile, states have cut per-student spending by an average of 21% in that same period (some by as much as 41%) and hiked up tuition by even more.

On a state-by-state level, the numbers are even more dismal. Young Invincibles scored each state on its public education support, and no more than eight states received grades of B or higher.

A single state—Wyoming—received a letter grade of A.

It’s not the first time the soaring costs of public education have been called into light. Federal data over the last several decades show that the cost of attending public colleges and universities has actually risen more rapidly than the cost of attending private schools. According to College Board, public four-year schools charged an average of $9,139 in 2015, compared to a measly $500 (in current dollars) in 1971.

Public colleges and universities enroll two-thirds of all of the US’s higher education students, and are intended in part to increase educational accessibility. So why are prices suddenly so steep?

Competition is one reason. As schools vie to attract top-tier students, the costs of hiring brand-name faculty members, building expensive facilities, and offering comfortable student amenities all add up. Many colleges have also expanded their sports programs and non-teaching payrolls in recent years, as CNBC noted in a comprehensive report in June. All these factors combined produce headache-inducing tuition rates at both private and public universities.

But since public schools rely on government subsidies and private schools do not, it’s students at the former who most keenly feel the pinch when states cut their education budgets. “The less funding a school gets from their state, the more students will have to pay in tuition to make up the difference,” Young Invincibles says in its report.

The explanation is simple—but for millions of families stuck with the bills, that won’t make it any more palatable.

Image by Sharat Ganapati on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.