The Cost of College Tuition in 2019

We all know that receiving an American college education is an expensive endeavor. Parents save and sacrifice for decades to have the privilege of ensuring their offspring have the chance to earn an undergraduate degree. How much though, do they need to save?

For the 2019-2020 academic year at a four-year college, the average cost of tuition was $10,230 for an in-state public college, $27,120 for out-of-state public schools, and $35,830 for a nonprofit private school.

Savings can be made by initially attending a two-year public institution. For the 2017-2018 academic year tuition there costs, on average, $3,660 annually. This explains why, increasingly, students are choosing to begin their undergraduate careers at community colleges.


Costs are Rising Faster than Inflation

The cost of undergraduate college tuition has been on the rise for decades. A generation ago, college tuition cost around half of what it does now. For the 2001-02 academic year, an undergraduate would pay, on average, tuition of $17,380 at a private nonprofit school. Today that same education would cost $35,830 per year. The same trend applies to a public four-year college for an in-state student. In 2001 they’d have been asked for $3,770, whereas today you’re facing a hefty bill of $10,230. In the same time period, the average price of public two-year college has increased from $1,610 to $3,660 per annum.

The average cost of college tuition and fees from 1971-72 to 2018-2019 academic years.
The average cost of college tuition and fees from 1971-72 to 2018-2019 academic years.

You’re probably wondering if the steep increase in college tuition since the mid-1980s is a result of inflation. If it is, then maybe college is just as expensive as it has always been once relative dollars are taken into account. However, once we adjust the price of college for inflation, we can clearly see that inflation alone is not responsible for the escalating cost of a college education.

The average cost of college tuition and fees, adjusted for inflation, from 1971-72 to 2018-2019 academic years.
The average cost of college tuition and fees, adjusted for inflation, from 1971-72 to 2018-2019 academic years.

We can see from the adjusted figures that the cost of higher education was stagnant throughout the 1970s. Since then, a consistent increase in college tuition costs has been experienced across the board. Going back to our 2001 fees, after adjusting for inflation, they were $25,192, $5,465, and $2,334 for a private nonprofit four-year, in-state public four-year, and an in-state public two-year institution, respectively. Interestingly, the last three years have seen a plateau in fee increases, with only a few hundred dollars increase being appreciated in every category. Perhaps this may indicate that college tuition prices have reached the pinnacle of what an average American family will, or rather can, pay.

If you’re interested in the compounding rate of inflation over this time, I’ve got a chart for that too. 🙂

The rising costs of private schools has dragged the cost of public school up along with it. As we can see, public school has kept its prices in line with private schools over the past (almost) 50 years. Public two-year college consistently costs 10% of the nonprofit four-year college. The relative cost of public four-year college has fluctuated between 21.2-29.7% of the cost of the it’s private counterparts. The last three years has seen a stabilization of this percentage of just under 29%.

Relative cost of tuition in % of public four-year college and public two-year college to private nonprofit four-year college.

Let’s not forget that these values stated here are just the average cost of tuition, including fees. These figures do not cover room and board, travel expenses, etc.

While many students don’t end up paying full sticker price for tuition, it is alarming that such a finical burden is placed on parents and youth to provide what is free in other countries. For every tax credit, financial aid check, discount, scholarship or fellowship that a student receives to reduce that burden, there is considerable effort that went into obtaining that “gift”.

It’s a broken system, one can only hope that the trend over the past few years holds and college stays within the grasp of the many.

Data for this post was obtained from: College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges.

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