College costs are rising, what can you do?

By Skye Golann

Champlain Valley Union High School

Now more than ever, the path to achievement and affluence leads through college. According to the Census Bureau, college graduates make nearly $1 million more throughout their working life than those with just a high school degree. A college education has become a necessity for most careers and so the push to get students into college has grown even more intense. But for too many students, going to college isn’t as simple as getting good grades and studying for the SATs. According to the College Board, about two-thirds of undergraduate students receive financial aid. But is it enough?

Tuition costs in the United States have been rising steeply for decades now, routinely doubling the rate of inflation. Over the last 10 years, tuition at public, four-year universities has risen by an average of 3.8% annually above the rate of inflation, according to the College Board.

The problem appears to be even more potent in Vermont, where tuition and fees at public colleges have risen 4.5% above the rate of inflation per year since 2007. Since the rate of inflation is only about 2.1%, this amounts to an increase of over 210% of inflation. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that median household income (a measure of how much families make) has increased by less than 1.5%, meaning that families are being forced to spend more and more of what they earn.

The one encouraging sign to come out of recent data is that at private colleges the rate of tuition increase over the past 10 years averaged only 2.3%, a significant drop from the previous two decades. That said, it’s still double the inflation rate, meaning that even at private colleges, students are still paying more.

So what has caused these drastic increases? The most common target is decreased state funding for public institutions. According to CBS MoneyWatch, total public funding for higher education has declined by 15% since the 2008 Recession. In Vermont, VTDigger reports that the state is spending 19% less per student than it did five years ago.

While decreased state funding might explain the increase at public colleges, the reason for similar increases at private institutions is less clear. Ronald Ehrenberg, Professor and Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University, chalks up rising costs to the constant pressure to improve the school’s image in order to attract more students: “To look better than their competitors, the institutions wind up in an arms race of spending to improve facilities, faculty, students, research and instructional technology.”

Rather than moving existing funds in order to pay for new projects to bolster school image, institutions frequently add more and more spending on top of existing costs, forcing them to raise tuition rates in order to keep up with growing levels of spending. “Institutions have chosen to maintain and increase quality largely by spending more, not by increasing efficiency, reducing costs, or reallocating funds,” said Ehrenberg. In order to solve the challenge of rising costs, colleges will have to find money from within their own budget and commit to sacrificing spending in order retain affordability.

So where can CVU students find assistance to help them deal with the increasing financial burden of college? According to Julie Dimmock, Snelling House Counselor at CVU, students receive the bulk of their financial aid from the college they attend. Despite this, Dimmock points to many outside options for assistance, both from VSAC, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, and from other local scholarships. So what should students do to increase their chances of receiving assistance? “Try to do your best academically, and be involved in some sort of community service. Scholarships often look for students who have given back to their community.”

For students who are still struggling to afford college costs, Dimmock recommends keeping an open mind and considering lower cost options. “Some private colleges can be affordable, but it would be important to apply to and consider other, less expensive options as well, including community college for the first two years,” she said.

In recent years, Dimmock has seen firsthand the effects of rising tuition.

“College has been expensive for a long time. I do think, though, that in the last few years, the conversation about cost has definitely become more commonplace,” she said.

While rising tuition costs may be unavoidable, most students can find a way to afford a college education with an open mind and smart planning. It will be well worth the effort.