Why Is College Tuition So Expensive?


Parents, politicians, and pundits often complain about the cost of college, since tuition has increased 100 percent at four-year public colleges — an increase that exceeds the rate of inflation.

Average tuition is $3,660 at two-year public colleges, $10,230 at public four-year universities, and $35,830 at private institutions, making it difficult for talented students from low-income families to enroll.

The major reason cited for increases at public institutions is the reduction in state support, which has declined nationally by $7 billion since 2008. Increases in healthcare premiums, facilities, recruiting costs, student support services, meeting accrediting standards, legal requirements, and technology upgrades also increase costs.

Some have proposed free tuition as the answer. Unfortunately, while making college free would reduce the price to families, it does not address the fundamental costs of college operations. Branding, athletics, and instruction all require administrative scrutiny and audits.

Families can learn about college costs and student success by using the federal College Scorecard website at collegescorecard.ed.gov to compare institutions’ average annual costs and graduation rates. On Long Island, for example, Hofstra’s cost is $31,815 while its graduation rate is 62 percent. At nearly one-half the cost, St. Joseph College’s charge is $16,976 while its graduation rate is second highest in the region at 70 percent.

One structural problem that is rarely addressed is that of curriculum requirements. Requiring excessive credits for graduation can increase costs for colleges and students. Another structural problem is that of creating scholarships by discounting tuition, which leads to an sticker-price increase for all students in order to provide enrollment incentives to some. The result is a decrease in the net revenue available for basic services and quality enhancements.

Some colleges discount tuition by more than 60 percent. The benefits of higher education are known and we as a country need more citizens with advanced degrees. The correlations between college completion and employment, income, health, and civic participation are strong.

Education and political leaders must find ways to make college affordable to more people by making changes in the institutional cost structure, controlling tuition and other increases even more rigorously, and funding more scholarships.

Robert A. Scott, Ph.D., is president emeritus of Adelphi University and author of How University Boards Work.