The higher education reckoning is upon us

Spring is a time of renewal. The Cherry Blossoms are in full bloom, the Mountain Laurels deliver their famous grape Kool-Aid scent, and 18-year-olds across the country lay awake wondering if they’ll be admitted to their first-choice college.

Yes, Spring is the season for hope and new beginnings, but it is also the time when financial aid and scholarship awards paint a fuller picture of students’ college options. It’s in the springtime that the spectrum of emotions are felt — from anger and disappointment to pride and elation.

Congratulations! You have been accepted to the class of 2025. Cue the tears, the hugs, and the fist pumps.

Now what?

You read through the admissions details to review your “acceptance package.” Did you earn a merit scholarship? Did you qualify for financial aid? What exactly will attending this institution cost?

Students and families face the realities of textbook expenses, meal plans, and room and board costs. Suddenly, the first-choice college may slip from the ranks and the unpacking of “college value” begins to weigh on the minds of everyone involved.

Pursuing a college degree has always been a significant commitment— whether it’s financial or emotional. Like all investments of money and time, you unpack the value of your future degree and reassess the expense from there.

So, if higher education has always been costly, what is this “reckoning?” Glad you asked.

From 1989 to 2016, college costs increased almost 8 times faster than wages. According to the 2021 study from Education Data, adjusting for inflation, the cost of tuition has increased by $7,502 or 361%. Between 2010 and 2020, the average tuition increase at 2-year colleges was $1,005 or 41.2%.

Families want to know why tuition continues to rise, Gen Z is mistrusting of this increase in costs, and the competition is waiting to pick up any student who falls out of love with your institution.

When asked why tuition and higher education expenses continue to increase, I’ve gathered the following opinions.

These are not exhaustive:

  • It’s expensive to deliver a high-quality education that also meets the needs of Gen Z.
  • It’s pricey to attract the best and brightest students.
  • Campuses represent a high, fixed-cost organization.
  • Institutions need to differentiate their brands and are doing so through facilities arms races — new athletics stadiums and locker rooms, state-of-the-art buildings, rock climbing walls, and Taj Mahal living spaces.
  • Everything costs more these days — it costs more to add or enhance existing services, to retain and attract a workforce, to purchase and maintain infrastructure, and to compete through financial packages for sought-after prospective students.
  • COVID-19 certainly doesn’t hold water when looking at rising costs over time, but it made a dent on the bottom line in 2020 and institutions will feel this for years to come.
  • Institutions must account for inflation.
  • Colleges and universities rely heavily on their endowment. The market over the past 15 years has been volatile.

COVID-19 accelerated this reckoning- forcing institutions to truly evaluate overhead, expenses, and return-on-investment.

Much of this is out of our control as administrators — We don’t have direct oversight into textbook sales, inflation, and other expenses.

However, we can do our part for students and families.

COVID-19 forced the hand of university leadership teams to focus on what really matters: delivering a world-class education (yes, sometimes through online learning), retaining and graduating students, and balancing the budget. The environment gave us permission to dig deep — freezing tuition and room and board increases, or packaging more financial aid using endowment funding.

The realities of demographic and socioeconomic shifts also can’t be ignored, but costs and delivering value are enough to chew in one article.

Senior Strategist and Project Manager at Trinity University. I write about higher education, marketing, project management, and a few wild hair topics.

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