Why Is College So Expensive?

An Econ 101 professor might say “supply and demand”

Three college-age students focus on exam in classroom

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Since 1985, the cost of college has been rising—most years, it's risen faster than inflation. Reasons for the tuition hikes include a loss of state funding, higher college enrollment, and the proliferation of student loans, which disincentivizes schools to keep costs down. Let's dive deeper into why college is so expensive and how you can cope financially.

Key Takeaways

  • The cost of college has been increasing much faster than other things we buy for most of the time since 1985.
  • Some reasons for the rapidly rising cost of college include loss of funding, higher enrollment, and more student loans available.
  • Students who want to mitigate these costs should start planning for them with their families early.

How Much Does College Cost?

Attending college is a much pricier prospect today than it was in decades past.

However, the amount you have to spend on college varies widely depending on what type of institution you attend. For instance, two-year community colleges offer much lower tuition and fees per year than a four-year university. Out-of-state students will pay even more, while private universities tend to charge the highest rates overall.

For the 2021-22 school year, the average cost of a U.S. college by school type was as follows:

  • Public two-year (in-district): $3,800
  • Public four-year (in-state): $10,740
  • Public four-year (out-of-state): $27,560
  • Private nonprofit four-year: $38,070

COVID-19 Anomaly: Historically Low Price Rises

The meteoric rise of college costs came to a sudden halt following the COVID-19 pandemic. Falling enrollment numbers and a shift to virtual learning meant colleges needed to keep tuition rates flat in order to attract students.

For the 2021-22 academic year, the average college sticker price increased a modest 1% to 2%, according to analysis by the CollegeBoard. Not only did colleges choose to minimize tuition increases, but record inflation also dwarfed increases, even at schools that decided to increase their rates more than usual.

“With inflation on the rise over the past few years, college costs appear to have fallen, even as [many] colleges continue to push pricing models on average increases of 3% to 4%,” said John Birney, associate director of college counseling at Solomon Admissions Consulting. 

He said that with inflation hitting a 40-year high in 2022, colleges that continued to raise their costs by an average of 4% only appear less expensive. 

Birney said more price hikes will be coming. “As inflation begins to decline and the markets stabilize, colleges will continue to ramp up their pricing models by the largest amount they deem to be feasible."

In fact, it appears that rampant inflation already prompted schools to jack up prices more to cover rising staff salaries, facilities costs, and expensive services such as mental health counseling.

For instance, University of Virginia tuition is up by 4.7% for the 2022-23 academic year, and will jump another 3.7% the following year. Costs rose 4% at Lafayette College for the 2022-23 year. And these price hikes may feel that much more jarring for students who have gotten used to relatively stable tuition rates for two years, and who are paying more for everything else as well due to inflation.

Why Is College So Expensive?

As you can see, the cost of earning a degree can rival buying a home. But it wasn’t always this way. Here’s a closer look at why college is so expensive.

Less State Funding

One of the major reasons college costs have increased so much is because government funding has not kept pace with the underlying cost of college, shifting the burden of paying for college from the government to the families, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Saving For College and author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.” 

That’s especially true since the 2008 financial crisis, as state-level funding for public two- and four-year colleges never rebounded following the recession. Between 2008 and 2018, 41 states spent less per student. On average, states spent 13% less (about $1,220) per student. Meanwhile, the average tuition in all 50 states for public four-year colleges increased by 37%.

On the other hand, wage growth has been slowing since the late 1970s. “This forces families to either borrow more or shift enrollment from higher-cost colleges to lower-cost colleges, such as from private to public colleges and from four-year to two-year colleges,” Kantrowitz said.

Inflated Retail Prices

The retail cost of college is largely a reflection of supply and demand, according to John Pearson, a certified college financial consultant with Barnum Financial Group's Center For College Planning.

“Over the last three decades, the demographics of college-age children reflect the echo of the baby boomers, a generation for whom the college experience was often life changing,” he said. “A large percentage of that group want their children to have a similar, if not better, experience.”

Colleges understand how to market to this parent group and that boomers often equate price with quality, Pearson added. It’s common for colleges to create the illusion of selectivity by building a pipeline of applicants well beyond what they can accept.

“That, coupled with use of tuition discounting, allows them to set an artificially high retail price and then offer scholarships—really just discounts—that bring the net price down,” he said. 


While the “sticker price” of a degree might seem exceptionally high, most students don’t end up paying that amount. It’s sometimes a strategy to make the school seem more exclusive and high quality.

Higher Enrollment

While the cost of tuition on paper is much higher than what most college students actually pay, that doesn’t mean families don’t overextend themselves financially, even with scholarships and other aid. Plus, the net cost of college has actually grown 63% over the past 20 or so years at public four-year institutions.

Another reason why college tuition has skyrocketed is that college attendance has steadily increased since the 1940s and 50s, when the federal government made it more affordable for military veterans and average citizens to enroll, said Andrew Pentis, a certified student loan counselor and expert for Student Loan Hero. As enrollment increased, there was less money available per student. So, not only is less aid available to schools, but the dollars don’t go as far as they used to. As a result, colleges have had to jack up their prices to support the number of students attending. 


Only in recent years did enrollment numbers fall, spurred by the pandemic. In 2020, two-year colleges saw the biggest decline in regression-adjusted enrollment rates—nearly 12%. Private and public four-year colleges saw declines of 4.5% and 2.8%, respectively.

More Financial Aid

When many people think of financial aid, they imagine scholarships, grants, and other free aid that doesn’t need to be paid back. However, financial aid also includes low-cost student loans through the federal government. And the increased availability of these loans has also pushed college costs higher.

In the 1990s, for example, unsubsidized federal loans were made widely available to students and their families, so schools haven’t been incentivized to keep their tuition prices down. Their students have simply borrowed more and more to defray the costs, according to Pentis.

“And the wheel just keeps on spinning because these students and their parents continue to believe—rightly, by the way—that a college degree will increase their lifetime earnings considerably over that of peers who didn’t advance past the twelfth grade,” he said.


The median annual earnings for graduates with a bachelor’s degree is about $37,000 or 85% higher than those who do not hold a degree higher than a high school diploma.

More College Services

Because colleges receive less funding, they have to operate more like businesses to stay afloat. That means competing against other schools for the most affluent, qualified students. One of the ways colleges do this is by providing top-tier amenities and services, such as state-of-the-art athletic equipment, palatial dorms, restaurant-quality food options, and more.

In a post-COVID world, desirable services that some colleges now provide include certain safety precautions and space allocations. Some experts say that to afford these upgrades, colleges have had to increase their revenue by raising prices.

Coping With High College Costs

There is a huge emotional side to paying for college. “My experience in counseling hundreds of parents is that they don't want to disappoint their kids,” Pearson said. “No parent wants to be in the role of diminishing their child's dreams and expectations.” 

Even so, it’s important to be realistic about what your family can afford to pay for college. Taking on too much debt can set students back financially for decades, whether they’re shouldering their own student loans or supporting parents later in life who sacrificed their retirement for higher education costs.

So how can families avoid overpaying for college?

Start Planning Early

“Typically, parents don’t start paying attention to these financial issues until after a list of possible schools has already been developed by the student,” Pearson said.

To ensure college isn’t a financial burden, it’s important for both parents and students to take an active role in planning early on. Set realistic goals on college choices based on what you can reasonably afford, and start socking away savings as soon as possible.

Use Tax-Advantaged Accounts

Due to the rapid pace that college tuition increases over time, money in a traditional savings account won’t grow fast enough by the time a child reaches college age. Instead, consider putting college savings into a state-sponsored 529 plan. These accounts allow you to invest funds to use later for qualified higher education expenses, free of income tax.

“Every dollar you save is a dollar less you'll have to borrow,” Kantrowitz said. “529 plans also provide families with the flexibility to send their children to a more expensive college than they otherwise could afford.”

Attend Community College First

The biggest and best way to save on college costs might also be the most obvious: attending a lower-priced school.

“If you attend a community college in your backyard and even live at home for those two years, for example, you could potentially halve your overall college costs,” Pentis said.

Once you have your general education out of the way and a firmer grasp on what you want to study, you can transfer to the four-year school you’ve been eyeing for your junior-year campaign.

Limit Debt

After you’ve chosen a school that fits your budget, be sure to exhaust every financing option available before you resort to borrowing student loans or signing income share agreements.

“Those options include tapping existing savings accounts, taking on a part-time job to increase income, applying for private scholarships and public grants, and more,” Pentis said.

Treat Scholarship Hunting Like a Full-Time Job

Kantrowitz suggested that students search for scholarships on free scholarship matching websites such as Fastweb.com and the College Board's BigFuture. Also, be sure to apply for financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).


You can submit the FAFSA for the 2022-23 school year from Oct. 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are expensive colleges worthwhile?

When evaluating the cost of various colleges, it’s important to look beyond the published price. Depending on what types of financial aid you qualify for, the cost could be significantly less than advertised. Be sure to compare schools’ net cost, which is the institution’s price minus any scholarships and grants you get.

Why are private colleges so expensive?

Private colleges tend to have a higher sticker price than public universities, but they also provide more aid, on average. According to the 2021 NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study, private, nonprofit colleges and universities reported record-high tuition discounts. In the 2021-2022 school year, full-time, first-year, first-time students received an estimated 54.5% tuition discount, on average, while all undergraduates received an average discount of 49%.

Why is college in the U.S. so expensive compared to other countries?

One of the biggest reasons why American students tend to spend more on college is because they’re responsible for picking up more of the tab. In other countries, it’s common for the government to subsidize the cost of education. In Norway, for example, most students attend college for free.

Was this page helpful?
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. College Board. "Trends in College Pricing: Highlights."

  2. University of Virginia. "UVA Board Approves Tuition for Next Two Academic Years."

  3. Lafayette College. "Lafayette Announces 4% Tuition Increase."

  4. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "State Higher Education Funding Cuts Have Pushed Costs to Students, Worsened Inequality."

  5. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "What's Causing Wage Stagnation in America?"

  6. College Board. "Trends in College Pricing 2019." Page 18.

  7. College Board. "College Enrollment and Retention in the Era of Covid." Page 7.

  8. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Quartiles and Selected Deciles of Usual Weekly Earnings by Educational Attainment."

  9. Edweek. "Why Has the Cost of College Outpaced Inflation?"

  10. National Association of College and University Business Officers. "Tuition Discount Rates at Private Colleges and Universities Hit All-Time Highs."

Related Articles