Why Even Public Universities See Unprecedented Tuition Hikes

The cost of attending public colleges has risen more rapidly than for private schools.

Caitriona Smyth, center, yells as she and other students march under Sather Gate during a protest against tuition increases at the University of California Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif. on Nov. 24, 2014.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
This article is from the archive of our partner Quartz

Public higher education in the U.S. is not in good shape. As states slowly chip away at education funding, tuition fees at public colleges are creeping up, and costs are increasingly being passed to students and their families.

A report released Thursday from educational advocacy group Young Invincibles highlights the extent of the problem. Data compiled in the report show that the average share of college fees and tuition paid by a student’s family has jumped from 36 percent in prerecession 2008 to 50 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, states have cut per-student spending by an average of 21 percent in that same period (some by as much as 41 percent) and hiked up tuition by even more.

On a state-by-state level, the numbers are even more dismal. Young Invincibles scored each state on its public education support, and no more than eight states received grades of B or higher.

A single state—Wyoming—received a letter grade of A.

It’s not the first time that the soaring costs of public education have been called into light. Federal data over the past several decades show that the cost of attending public colleges and universities has actually risen more rapidly than the cost of attending private schools. According to College Board, public four-year schools charged an average of $9,139 in 2015, compared to a measly $500 (in current dollars) in 1971.

Public colleges and universities enroll two-thirds of all of the U.S.’s higher-education students, and are intended in part to increase educational accessibility. So why are prices suddenly so steep?

Competition is one reason. As schools vie to attract top-tier students, the costs of hiring brand-name faculty members, building expensive facilities, and offering comfortable student amenities all add up. Many colleges have also expanded their sports programs and nonteaching payrolls in recent years, as CNBC noted in a comprehensive report in June. All these factors combined produce headache-inducing tuition rates at both private and public universities.

But since public schools rely on government subsidies and private schools do not, it’s students at the former who most keenly feel the pinch when states cut their education budgets. “The less funding a school gets from their state, the more students will have to pay in tuition to make up the difference,” Young Invincibles says in its report.

The explanation is simple—but for millions of families stuck with the bills, that won’t make it any more palatable.

This article is from the archive of our partner Quartz.