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Why Is College so Expensive? How You Can Afford Your Degree

In a perfect world, every student should be able to go to college based on their academic excellence rather than their ability to pay. Financial aid opportunities and the contributions of benefactors have made it easier for some families to cover the hefty cost of education. However, the total student loan balance has risen to over a whopping $1.04 trillion since 2004. So, why is college so expensive?

The answer is not so clear-cut, as the rising cost of college fees is due to several factors. From the rising demand for college degrees to lower state funding, we’ll explore the primary reasons why college is so expensive in the article below.

Read on to learn more about the complex system of college tuition and fees, and how to work your way around the mountainous costs of a college education.

Why College Is Expensive: The Main Reasons

“The College Experience”

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Over the last century, colleges and universities have begun to behave more like businesses rather than educational institutions. From offering more desirable perks to advertising for the attention of students, competition among colleges is quite fierce. Much like big business, the race for higher rankings is fueled by offering the ultimate experience.

From creating high-end athletic facilities to lavish campuses and cafeterias, these pricey ventures continue and their costs are passed onto paying students. In 2011, the Hechinger Report stated that colleges and universities collectively spent over $11 billion on new facilities while simultaneously amassing $205 billion in debt. In 2017, colleges and universities collectively spent $8.4 billion on new construction and renovations.

Part of the reason why colleges charge more now is because of such expenses. However, a large fraction of students prefers to attend colleges and universities that spend liberally on such amenities. This begs the questions, is the college experience really worth such a pretty penny? 

Administrative Staff and Employees

Erasing the cost of amenities and facilities would only remove a fraction of the cost of tuition. Perhaps the greatest cause for rising educational costs is the many administrative personnel running higher educational institutions. According to the New York Times, the Department of Education found that the number of administrative positions at higher education institutions increased by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.

According to the Atlantic: “The vast majority of American college spending goes to routine educational operations—like paying staff and faculty.” Furthermore, these administrative costs take up $23,000 per student, per year—over twice the amount that most European countries spend on such services. 

Students expect schools to have excellent career services and technologically advanced programs, which increases costs further. Though administrative costs can’t take all the blame for the mighty student loan debt, studies show that universities and colleges have had to offset such expenses by raising tuition rates.  

State Funding

Another reason college is so expensive is that funding at the public and federal level continues to decline. Research shows government subsidies for higher education amount to little more than half of the total education revenue received by public colleges and universities. This is significantly less than during the late 1980s when public support amounted to 77 percent of this same revenue nationally.

This suggests that college tuition fees have been pushed up because state funding simply can’t keep up with all the students that have been enrolling. Consequently, they are forced to reduce their support, and the majority of the financial burden falls upon students to cover. 

The College Board’s 2019 report notes that 2017-2018 state and local funding per student was 10 percent lower than in 1987-1988.

Demand for College Degrees

According to Business Insider, the return on investment for “college degrees has fallen and 40 percent of kids don’t graduate within six years.” Clearly, the benefits of pursuing a degree seem to be dwindling. 

However, Business Insider also reported that US colleges expected “a total of 20.4 million students in fall 2017,” which represented a 30 percent projected increase since 2000. So, why exactly is the demand for college degrees growing instead of decreasing as it perhaps should?

Despite the mountainous cost, the pressure to go to college is actually growing. According to Georgetown University, 65 percent of jobs require some form of a college degree. This creates greater competition and demand for both students seeking admission and colleges seeking applicants. As a result, the large influx of students coupled with minimal government regulations allows colleges to set the price tag of their “desirable” degrees. 

This ties into all of the other factors regarding college expenses. Like most businesses, higher education institutions try to justify their price tag by investing more and more into their services, creating a never-ending cycle. From first-class amenities and high administrative services to inefficient government support, the student loan debt will only increase further.

What You Can Do to Afford College

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A traditional college is an expensive option, so research other alternatives available to you.

Though financial aid seems to be the way to go for most college students, paying for college can still be incredibly expensive. The goal of aid programs is to alleviate the costs of college for students.  

However, this means institutions know they can raise their prices and students will still attend. In sum, although aid amounts have increased, tuition costs have as well, effectively nullifying the pros of federal aid.  

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started its rampage on the livelihoods of millions of people across the world, education has been affected as well. As a result, in-person learning is just not as feasible as it used to be. Online learning seems to be the only feasible way for many students to continue their education. 

For a long time, online learning has been perceived as an illegitimate method of pursuing a degree. However, this is far from the case as online degrees hold as much merit as traditional ones in a professional context and can often be cheaper. As long as you obtain your degree from a regionally accredited institution rather than from seedy diploma mills, employers will be impressed by your credentials.

Benefits of Online Learning: Cost, Quality, and Convenience

You may be wondering if online learning is right for you. Though online education provides a greatly different learning environment, it has the upper hand over in-person learning in many areas. Not only are they much more affordable, but online learning programs also offer many benefits over their brick-and-mortar counterparts. 

According to a LinkedIn survey, 58 percent of employees prefer self-paced learning over instructor-led learning. Though online degrees previously held a stigma of not being legitimate or thorough enough, that is far from the truth today. 

These days, online, accredited college programs are held to very high standards in terms of curricula and resources, similar to on-the-ground universities. You can utilize video lessons, personal instructor interaction, virtual collaboration with classmates, and several meticulous guides and other information on the Internet to assist you in your learning. 

If you partake in an online master’s degree program, then you’ll save a fortune as you won’t be paying pesky fees for boarding, meal plans, or transportation. Financial aid is also available for online learners, which should never be overlooked. Furthermore, the several miscellaneous fees that constitute a high percentage of traditional tuition expenses do not have to be paid.  

Perhaps the most popular benefit of online programs is their convenience. Not only can you access a variety of programs and resources online, but you can also study in an asynchronous format. This means you can finish your courses as quickly or as slowly as you’d like. Being able to choose your program based on its quality and affordability rather than its location is also a big plus. 

Not only will you be able to save money by earning your degree online, but you’ll also be able to do it from your home. Whether you’re working a full-time job or taking care of your loved ones, the flexibility of online classes will surely make your learning stress free. After all, the greatest expense associated with college is really the lack of convenience.

FAQs About College Expenses

What is the average cost of higher education in each institution?

According to data reported from US News and World Report, the average cost of tuition for the 2019–2020 school year was $41,426 at private colleges, $11,260 for state residents at public colleges, and $27,120 for out-of-state students at state schools.

What are the pros and cons of not attending college?

There are certainly some benefits associated with not attending college, such as:

Earning money instead of spending on higher education
Gaining life experience through different careers
Gaining independence

However, there are probably more negatives associated with not attending college, including:

Not boosting your salary potential
Not ensuring higher job security
Not experiencing the many things college has to offer (meeting new people; joining clubs; taking various courses)

How can I save money as a college student?

If you enroll in college, you can still be better off than others by handling your finances and curbing your debt in the long run. Here are some ways you can do so:

Keep track of your spending: This will ensure that you don’t spend on unnecessary things.
Get a side job: This will look good on your resume and give you job experience as well.
Cook your own meals: Do not spend your money on fast food.

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