How Much Has College Tuition Outpaced Inflation?

By Melissa Brock · March 17, 2024 · 6 minute read

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How Much Has College Tuition Outpaced Inflation?

College tuition inflation since 1980 has been rising. In fact, widely cited statistics have consistently shown college tuition rising faster than inflation.

It’s no secret: College tuition is on the rise, and it has been for years. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2021-2022 academic year, tuition and fees costs at undergraduate institutions were:

•   $9,700 at public institutions

•   $17,800 at private for-profit institutions

•   $38,800 at private nonprofit institutions

Between 2008-2009 and 2018-2019, costs rose 28% at public institutions and 19% at private nonprofit institutions. However, the costs for private for-profit institutions have reduced 6% in 2018-2019 compared to 2008-2009.

In comparison, public institutions cost $9,100 in 2010-2011, private for-profit was $19,400, and nonprofit institutions cost $34,000 in the same year, according to NCES , a subagency of the U.S. Department of Education.

Why has college tuition outpaced inflation, anyway? We’ll walk you through a complete guide to understanding college tuition vs inflation and the reasons college tuition has outpaced inflation over time.

What Is the College Tuition Inflation Rate?

First of all, inflation refers to a decrease in how much individuals can purchase with their money, based on increases in the prices of goods and services. According to Macrotrends, the general U.S. inflation rate for 2022 was 8%. Inflation peaked at 13.55% in 1980, at its highest levels since 1960.

Each college has its own tuition rate increase per year, so to get an accurate measure of an individual college’s tuition inflation rate, you can use the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) inflation rate calculator to calculate the current inflation of college tuition rate for each institution based on previous tuition costs.

Ultimately, the average cost of tuition has increased nearly 180% over the past 20 years, even after accounting for inflation.

How Does Inflation Affect College Tuition?

When the cost of goods goes up, colleges and universities offset the increased cost of operating by increasing tuition costs.

The Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), which measures the price changes of items that allow universities to stay afloat, doesn’t align exactly with the Consumer Price Index, which refers to what consumers pay for goods.

It can be difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between rising tuition at colleges and universities and changes in inflation because the HEPI is affected by more than just the cost of goods. For example, administrators, professors, financial aid professionals, admission counselors, and others also require salary increases on top of the miscellaneous expenses associated with keeping college and university facilities running.

Why Is the Cost of College Rising?

There are other reasons that cause tuition, room, board, and fees to increase from year to year. In the next section, let’s explore the reasons that it becomes more expensive to run a school. We’ll discuss state funding availability, demand, and financial aid.

Less State Funding

Declining state funding has influenced tuition costs at state universities as health care and pensions increase for state employees.

As a direct result of the last two economic recessions, education appropriations remain 6% and 14.6% below 2008 and 2001 levels, respectively, according to the 2022 State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) report produced by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).

However, state funding for financial aid has increased steadily for two decades. State and local funding reached $100 billion for higher education for the first time in fiscal 2019.

More Demand

As demand rises, costs increase as well. More than five million more students attended U.S. colleges in 2017 than in 2000, though between fall 2010 and fall 2021, total undergraduate enrollment decreased by 15% (from 18.1 million to 15.4 million students), according to the most recent data from NCES.

Despite recent statistics, it’s still evident that the demand for higher education has continued to increase over the past few decades. The dependence on a highly skilled workforce and growing wage differences between college and high school graduates means more students choose to attend college and drive up the demand for higher education. Higher education prices must increase in response to a growing student population.

More Federal Aid

The 1987 Bennett hypothesis (named after President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett), stated that colleges will raise tuition when financial aid increases, especially subsidized federal loans that offer low interest rates. In other words, the theory was that colleges can raise prices because federal financial aid will cover the excess costs and students can offset the cost increase with federal student loans.

Is the Bennett hypothesis still a worry today?

The New York Federal Reserve compiled a 2015 study that supports that finding. It found that student credit expansion of the past fifteen years has risen with college and university tuition.

Why Has College Tuition Outpaced Inflation?

It’s not easy to pinpoint one single reason for the rise in college tuition — you might be quick to blame governments that face deep deficits and cannot subsidize the full costs of higher education. However, the truth is that the costs of outpaced inflation are multifaceted.

Colleges often attempt to raise tuition to appear competitive with similar institutions, increasing costs across the board. University presidents also face enrollment demands and increases in HEPI also inflate budgets. That’s why high school students, together with their families, may want to carefully plan for the costs of attending a particular institution.

Some options for students who are looking into financing their education might include finding work during the summer, applying for financial aid, or looking into payment tuition plans.

College Tuition Inflation Since 1985

According to data from the NCES, since 1985 the average college tuition at all institutions has increased nearly $20,000 from $4,885 to $24,623 during the 2018-2019 school year. That number is even higher when considering the cost of attending a four-year institution, which in 1985 was $5,504 and during the 2018-2019 school year increased to $28,123

College Tuition vs Inflation

The increase in college tuition and fees have outpaced the rise of inflation for decades. According to Forbes, the cost of attending a four-year college or university during the 2021-2022 school year was increasing at double the rate of inflation. The cost of attending a two-year community college is increasing a third faster than the rate of inflation.

However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has changed slightly. From the 2020-2021 school year and the 2021-2022 school year, tuition and fees increased by about 0.6% on average, while overall prices in the U.S. increased by 3.2%, according to Bloomberg based on data from the BLS.

The Takeaway

College tuition has increased dramatically — increasing by nearly 180% in the past 20 years. The reasons for such an rise in tuition can be attributed to a variety of factors including less state funding, an increase in demand, and even an increase in the amount of federal aid awarded.

Despite the seeming downsides to inflation and college costs, SoFi can offer some major perks to help you pay for school with our private student loans. Note because private student loans don’t offer the same benefits as federal student loans (like income-driven repayment options), private student loans are generally considered only after students have carefully reviewed all other sources of funding and financial aid.

But, if private student loans seem like an option, you can check your rates and apply in minutes and easily add a cosigner if you so choose.* Borrowers can choose from four flexible repayment options and there are no fees.

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Photo credit: iStock/TARIK KIZILKAYA

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