Why is college so expensive? We’re getting a wry chuckle out of that one. Every admission counselor hears it in every admission office at least 100 times per day.

No question about it, college tuition was cheaper in ye olden days. From the late 1980s to 2018, the cost of an undergraduate degree has risen by 213% at public schools and 129% at private schools, adjusted for inflation, according to Business Insider.

Here are four reasons the cost of college has climbed — there are more, but we tapped into just a few. We’ll also show you how to deal with these costs head-on.

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1: State funding continues to slide.

State legislatures pull money away from higher education every year. In fact, they’ve spent less and less per student on higher education for the past three decades. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges at the end of 2017 was nearly $9 billion below 2008, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Now, state funding doesn’t have anything to do with liberal arts colleges and other private colleges and universities. Private colleges don’t receive funds from state legislatures. They’re reliant on tuition and private contributions. This means tuition rates are generally higher.

2: College employees are expensive.

College students are taught and mentored by a lot of people who have college degrees themselves. This can include faculty members, administration and student life personnel (the people who run the residence halls). That means colleges and universities pay these individuals a larger salary compared to unskilled workers. This isn’t to say that colleges don’t pay unskilled workers — they may do that, too. The point is — it all costs money.

Plus, there are a lot of positions unique to higher education. We checked out a few job listings on higheredjobs.com:

  • Senior coordinator, Male Success Initiative
  • Engagement coordinator
  • Retention specialist
  • Printmaking instructional support manager
  • Director of civic engagement

Huh. Interesting.

3. Student services are growing.

Student services spending reflects a growing demand for excellent career counseling, academic advising and campus mental health services. In fact, student services are among the fastest-growing spending categories at private institutions and selective public institutions.

Spending per student increased by more than 20 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the American Institutes for Research. 

4: There are no price controls.

Do you ever wonder what would happen if colleges were forced to reign it in? Colleges and universities charge a lot because they can — because there’s no regulated fee structure.

This gets into some political territory, which we’re not willing to go into, but the truth is that colleges aren’t incentivized to keep their prices down. In fact, some families believe that the higher-priced a school is, the more prestige it carries.

Colleges, in a mad dash to seem more appealing than those that are cheaper and “less desirable,” jack up their prices. (This is kind of a simplistic way of looking at it, but that’s the shorthand version of what happens.)

How to combat the cost of college

There’s not much you can do about the cost of college. Luckily, some colleges are starting to do something about it. Check out Central College’s tuition reset. (Tuition resets move colleges to a more transparent pricing model. This means the published price is closer to the actual price a student pays.)

Otherwise, there are other schools that are naturally cheaper — check out a community college if you’re looking for one of the cheapest options.

Making college affordable is like piecing together a giant puzzle. You take a look at the amount of financial aid you can get so you can parse together how you’ll be able to pay for it. You can use a combo of the following financial aid options.

Scholarships and grants

The almighty scholarship — it’s what legions of students and parents have chased for dozens of years. And for good reason, because scholarships and grants are both gift aid (read: free money!) that doesn’t have to be paid back. So, what are the specific differences between scholarships and grants? 

  • Scholarships are usually merit-based, which means they’re based on grades, athletic ability, musical talent, etc. 
  • Grants are usually need-based, which means they’re awarded based on your family’s financial situation. The needier you are, the more likely you’ll qualify for grants.

Tap into the school you’re attending for scholarships. Ask your school counselor, your friends’ parents, your dad’s work, your clubs and organizations. Look online. Scholarships are everywhere. You just need to find them.


Work-study is both a federal- and state-funded program to help students with financial need get part-time jobs. Around 3,400 colleges and universities offer work-study programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Work-study doesn’t cover all your college costs, though. Remember that puzzle we were talking about? You can combine your personal savings, scholarships, grants and loans to jigsaw all the pieces together.

Here’s how to qualify and get most out of a work-study job:

  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Your financial aid award may say that you qualify for work-study but you still have to actively seek out a job. Visit your college’s human resources office to find out what job opportunities are available. You can often find jobs just about anywhere on campus — the cafeteria, admission office, the library, financial aid office, campus athletic facilities and more.

You’ll only be able to make as much as your financial aid award stipulates — usually at minimum wage. Be a savvy consumer and ask the financial aid office at your college if you can earn more. It might be possible.


There are different types of loans you can tap into, and a few of the most popular are federal student loans. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s federal student loan program is the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program. The U.S. Department of Education is your lender under this program. There are four popular types of federal loans available:

You can also tap into private loans when everything else won’t cover the costs. Read the fine print on every single loan you apply for. Make sure you know your loan, whether you’re getting a federal or private student loan.

Here are some questions to know the answer to:

  • How much are you planning to borrow?
  • Is your interest rate fixed or variable, and how will that change your full loan amount? 
  • What are the upfront fees you’ll need to pay?
  • What is your first repayment date? Do you have a grace period?
  • How long is your loan term?
  • Are there words you don’t understand in the documentation? If there are, ask a financial aid representative at the school you’re attending. That’s why they’re around!
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Tap your savings

How much have you, your parents and/or grandparents saved for your college expenses? Now’s the time to ask. If you’re a parent reading this, now’s the time to pull up the 529 plan online, count savings bonds — whatever you’ve done to save. And if you haven’t saved anything, don’t get scared off. We’ve covered lots of ways to make college happen.

Colleges aren’t going to ask you to pay for an entire four years up front. Consider making regular payments for college using a 10-month payment plan or another type of payment plan. This can break up all the expenses.

College is expensive — piece your options together

Now, when other people lament, “Why is college so expensive?” you’ll have a few answers. There may not be too much you can do to control the cost of college — at least, until all colleges start doing tuition resets.

The best tool in your arsenal: Knowing how you can make all the pieces fit together so you can make college happen.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Make friends with your admission counselor and the financial aid rep at the college you’re attending. They may have avenues for you to pursue that you might not have even considered. Trust us — those rock stars are good people to know.

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