Sticker shock: The rise of college tuition in recent years

For most students, every penny counts, but living by this old adage is becoming increasingly difficult as tuition prices rise, while the earning power of currently enrolled college students remains largely the same. Post-graduate opportunities may be a different story, but many collegiate students are focused on and worried about the here and now.

There is a struggle between giving a high-value education without an equally high sticker price. According to the Bloomberg Labor Department, in the new millennium alone, tuition prices have increased at double the rate of medical care and quadruple the rate of housing or shelter. Tuition has usually risen because the colleges spend more of their own volition or need to increase spending because their funding has been reduced or income has been otherwise affected. Alumni and other donors can sometimes pick up the tab, but quite frequently, the brunt of the bill falls on students and their families.

Ruth O’Hara ‘16 is a Business Administration major at Metropolitan State University. To keep costs down, she first went to a community college to complete her generals and then transferred to a larger university in the city.

“My aunt and uncle both graduated with just under a thousand dollars in student loans to pay off. They had them paid off within a year of graduating,” says O’Hara. “It use to be that the government subsidized college tuition; now college students help subsidize the government.”

These college students have wondered why tuition is so expensive. But most have no choice over whether to work over the recommended 10 to 15 hours per week if they want to be able to pay tuition.

In an ethics project conducted at St. Kate’s, eleven students responded anonymously to a survey. Two respondents worked approximately 30 to 50 hours a week (with one working 50+ hours.) Only two of the respondents worked within the recommended number of hours, the lowest bracket being zero to 10. One of the two wrote in why she wasn’t clocking in paid hours: “I’m a mom and military family,” she said. “So that’s work.”

Caitlin Weber ’16 is one student who took advanced classes in high school and will be graduating from St. Kate’s in the expected four years. A few of her friends have had more of a struggle.

“I appreciate the fact that they give very generous scholarships,” Weber said. “But I have friends that may not be coming back to St. Kate’s because of the price of tuition.”

Brian Bruess, Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Student Affairs, speaks to the layers of organizational responsibility that he and his subordinates share in trying to make the college experience affordable.

“Sister Andrea’s job is to guide the broadest view of the university’s financial health,” Bruess said. “Student Accounts and Financial Aid and retention folks—they’re here walking students through the details. Together, there’s like this ecosystem that we put around questions of affordability and [we customize] it for the individual student to help her see what the costs are and manage and pay for those.”

There is still a significant gap between the costs of public and private universities, despite efforts to maintain the overall cost in relation to inflation. In a series of trends studied by the College Board in its surveys of colleges, the most recent year (2013-14) showed private-college tuition to be more than triple that of a public university. Many students go the route of public higher education, given that it is cheaper and presents in-state admissions benefits.

Scott Faust is the director of communications and marketing at Bemidji State University and speaks for his university on the attempts to keep tuition costs down. He also talks about ways in which staff attempt to play to two different roles in order to maintain the affordability of the college experience.

“Funding from the state does allow us to hold our cost down, certainly,” Faust said. “Here at Bemidji State in several of our administrative leadership we get double duty out of our positions to hold down costs,” he said, referring to dual positions held by leadership up to and including the president at Bemidji State, who is president of both Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College. “That cost is spread across two institutions rather than having duplication between them. It cuts the cost in half.”

There is a counter to the more expensive cost of a private university versus a public one. Students at private institutions have greater access to the higher-ups in the university, as Sister Andrea Lee, President of St. Kate’s elaborates on in an interview with herself and Brian Bruess.

“You’re paying for access to top-drawer faculty members who know your name and are gonna help you develop your skills, talents and desires and help leverage you into where you want to be when you finish,” Lee said.

Both public and private universities have their own appeals and drawbacks when it comes to tuition prices. As far as ability to pay back the loans through increased earning power goes, studies have shown that it depends more on the individual student and their earning abilities as per their own dispositions allow.

Meghan Flores of the St. Kate’s Financial Aid office speaks on how the office serves as a resource to students struggling with finances.

“What we do with students is look at that individual student and what their situation is, and what are their options,” Flores said. “And so we would walk a student through: Does it make sense to adjust their credit load? Does it make sense to consider taking a class over the summer, which might be lower cost?’ It’s really going to be individual to the student. It’s really an individual plan for what works best for that student.”

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