Why Is College So Expensive?

Current and prospective college students might not fully understand just how much a college degree is going to cost them, but recent college graduates sure do.

According to recent studies, the average student graduates with about $24,000 dollars worth of student loan debt, and Americans are now in more debt due to student loans than due to credit cards.  College costs for students continue to rise at a rate multiple times the cost of living increases experienced by the average American. Attending college is becoming more and more financially challenging for middle class Americans.

But why do colleges and universities charge so much?  And can anything be done to reverse the trend?

Below you will find several basic possible reasons behind the ever-increasing cost of a college degree:

1. The side effect of Federal student aid.

Federal student aid, while a necessity for many talented individuals who otherwise might not have been able to finance their college educations, could actually be contributing to the problem of rising tuition costs.  There are two major reasons for this.  First, easy access to federal student aid causes students to ignore the numbers in front of them.  Knowing that another party is financing their bill makes students less concerned about the price tag, and, if students do not protest tuition prices, what incentive do university administrators have to lower them?

Secondly, federal student aid has risen steadily over the years in order to keep up with college admission prices.  The goal of these aid programs is simple: to reduce the cost of college for students.  However, as aid amounts have increased, so too have tuition costs, effectively negating the benefits of increasing federal aid.  Colleges and universities know that they can raise their prices and that students will still attend – in part because the government is handing them money.

2. A college degree is perceived as a necessity.

older student in college struggling to raise needed cashIn today’s job market, a college degree is widely considered to be a necessity, even in many professions where it was once considered superfluous.  This has contributed to an increase in students attending college to prepare for professions where they do not necessarily need degrees.  Colleges are well aware of public opinion regarding college degrees, so they are also aware that they can set tuition almost as high as they’d like and still attract a sizeable student body.  To combat this problem, American students would need to seriously reevaluate their life paths and decide whether they truly need a college degree in order to pursue their desired career.  Professional, vocational, or technical training should be viewed as a viable alternative to a four-year degree, not a less worthy undertaking (as it is viewed by many now).

 3. Colleges do not see students as their customers.

Partly because college administrators know that their product is in high demand and is guaranteed to sell at virtually any price, they sometimes view student attendance as an inevitability.  Therefore, some schools tend to focus more on the demands and needs of their professors, alumni, investors, and other important “customers” rather than the needs of their students.  Expensive athletic programs (supposedly benefiting alumni more than students), trustees’ whims, and professors’ demands are just a few examples of ways that educational institutions have been known to cater to the needs of their customers at the expense of their students.

4. Peer pressure is powerful.

As one college increases its rates, a competing “classy” school follows suit and raises its rates accordingly. The domino effect is copied throughout the nation as school administrators feel the next rate increase is justified since neighboring institutions have already jumped onto the bandwagon. Colleges that keep rates intentionally low are quickly viewed as sub-par by other schools and may run the long term risk of devaluing the worth of education received through their brand.

5. Student acquisition costs are skyrocketing.

Amidst all the criticism for nonsensical increases in the cost of American college education, one final point is worth noting. The cost for acquiring an individual student at an American college is rapidly increasing. Each year, new for profit colleges are created while other similar institutions rapidly expand. These for profit colleges directly compete for students with the historic US universities, state institutions, private colleges and community colleges.  The annual increase in student openings at American colleges far exceeds the annual increase in the number of students entering colleges. American colleges find themselves forced to target adults and pressure them into beginning or returning to college in order to create a continuing yet non sustainable student population growth.

Out of desperation, colleges pay $35 or more merely for a new prospective student’s contact information. A long food chain of marketing firms and affiliates then take advantage of this desperation by using traditional and nontraditional techniques to lure unsuspecting individuals into submitting their personal information which is then sold to these colleges. Many of these contacts prove to be worthless, but only after a college spends in excess of $50 per contact through phone calls and promotional mailings as well as hefty payments to those who obtained the prospective student’s personal information.

As college student recruitment and admissions offices fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to obtain enough students to keep their schools operational, that escalating student acquisition cost contributes directly to the tuition costs that wildly continue to increase to levels an average American family will soon find unfathomable.

What can be done?

We invite our readers to share their thoughts into what can be done to salvage the American higher educational system before it is too late.

This article originally was posted in December of 2011, but it is just as relevant today, and the average amount of student debt upon graduation is inevitably only increasing.

About Andrew Jensen

Andrew Jensen, a business growth, efficiency & marketing consultant, provides business advisory services for clients in the Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; York, Hanover, Lancaster & Harrisburg, PA regions. Andrew advises regarding business growth, productivity, efficiency, business startups, customer service, and online/offline marketing. Follow Andrew on Google+


  1. Sanjay Kumar says:

    High competition in higher education leads to skyrocketing student acquisition cost and cost of building opinion for students & parents before paying for fee. Students and parents evaluating the value of degree and need evidence of successful ROI before signing off for a college. And counseling session by colleges do not support this, they rather need public opinion.

    Colleges across the world are increasingly assessed on the success of their alumni and a closely embedded alumni network can help build positive opinion about the college and reduce the cost and effort in signing up the new recruitment. Also, alumni and students can play a crucial role in enrollments and counseling, marketing by students and alumni pays higher dividend than the traditional marketing techniques.

    Globally colleges perceive alumni as a source of donation. But alumni can provide tangible benefits to colleges and reduce cost in areas like new enrollments and corporate relations. An engaged and active alumni network with average 30% alumni in management roles can easy:
    1. reduce cost of acquisition by 30%
    2. reduce cost of corporate relations by 60%.

    Hope above information will give the audience new perspective.

  2. Fees is high because students needs college more than college needs students

  3. Braden Bills says:

    I think it makes sense that colleges are so expensive. They’re practically necessary in this modern market! You need to have some kind of degree!

  4. Absolute nonsense! Contradicting yourself: if colleges don’t see students as customers why do they spend ridiculous amount of money on acquiring leads!!!???

  5. In all the articles I have found online about why college is so expense, none address the college’s overhead and capital projects (luxury student housing, sports arenas), which the college increases in order to attract students. Still, the non-education related expenses have to be funded somehow, and that will be reflected in the cost of tuition. Why has no one examined the actual cost per student (which seems out of control) rather than simply how students are funding their education?

  6. Rose Amblood says:

    As a student, I am doing a research project. After reading your article, I am confused. Are you for or against free college education?

    • Nelson Walker says:

      Free college is a myth unless college is going to be somewhat free for top performing students seeking STEM degrees or needs based professional degrees. I doubt anyone will get free college for a General Studies or Liberal Arts degree.

  7. There is not “free”. The money has to come from somewhere and it comes from income, sales or corporate taxes. Free will only lead to continued cost growth. When these is no transparency or concern about cost to the actual consumer of the service, then we have cost growth. Look at healthcare

Share Your Thoughts