The cost of college is driving students down

Tuition has increased 169% between 1980-2019


For many students attending college or preparing to start that educational journey, the cost weighs heavy.

Teenagers and young adults suffer from anxiety and struggle with mental health more than ever before and a lot of it has to do with how they can meet expectations set by society to go to college, graduate and become successful adults.

The problem, however, is that the cost of college continues to increase. When comparing today’s costs to generations before, the amount of debt students take on to complete a degree is impacting their lives for decades.

Throughout her internship with Colorado Community Media, Bella Terhark, a recently graduated senior at Castle View High School, regularly stressed about the cost of college. She said doing extracurricular activities and working hard to get the best grades was all in the hope of getting scholarships to pay for school.

Terhark looked at local schools but wanted to be more adventurous and go to school out of state. After graduating, Terhark said she will be attending a college in Wyoming and majoring in journalism.

The stress felt by students is a concern, said Arapahoe Community College Dean of Students Javon Brame. The mental health crisis teenagers and young adults are facing is like another pandemic, Brame said.

The cost to get an education is a large part of that stress, Brame said. The 10-year dean said that on campus, it is not unusual to have struggling students transported to a mental health facility for help.

“The cost of college is higher than ever,” Brame said. “And the financial assistance available to students and work is not enough to cover it all anymore. Society has to figure out this burden we are putting on students and its not the college, it’s society.”

Brame described a society where students are struggling to have fair access to higher education, calling it “academic capitalism.”

“You enter the system, and it decides how you are sorted out in society,” he said. “Class is the sorting ground.”

In the 1970s, Audrey Brooks — a member of the Baby Boom generation — paid for her first few years of college with grants and working. By her senior year, she said, she needed a loan to finish, which she estimated at about $2,000.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a full-time student at a public, four-year institution is looking at paying more than $22,000 a year to get a degree in Colorado. The statistics, drawn from the 2019-2020 school year, show the breakdown for tuition, required fees, room and board.

Colorado is average compared to other states. While most colleges cost about $20,000, in New Jersey and Vermont students are paying closer to $30,000. On the lower end, a year in Florida is around $15,000.

In Wyoming where Terhark will begin college this fall, NCES out-of-state tuition estimates are lower than the national average at around $14,800.

According to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, between 1980 and 2019, the average price for college increased 169%.

Author Sandy Baum, a national expert on college tuition, financial aid and college affordability, said the price of a degree has gone up dramatically over the last three decades while income levels have been more stagnant.

With more and more people being told by society to go to college, enrollment rates are going up along with tuition rates, Baum said.

Besides parents and societal pressures to get a degree, moving up in class is also part of the equation.

“It is hard to get a good, middle-class job without an education,” Baum said. “Now, it’s getting harder to afford it. College is must more expensive, and states need to put more into fixing the issues.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, education does pay. According to a 2020 report, U.S. workers with bachelor’s degrees had a median weekly income of $1,305. A worker with a high school diploma has a median income of $781.

According to the Georgetown University report, Recovery, in 2020 65% of all U.S. jobs required postsecondary education and training beyond high school.

Besides the cost of paying for a degree, Baum said it’s becoming harder to students to live. With rent increases, inflation rates hitting grocery bills and gasoline costs at a record high, students are struggling to support themselves.

Blame said besides investing more in counseling services to address mental health concerns in students, colleges are also opening more food pantries to make sure they are eating.

Children’s Hospital Colorado Mental Health-in-Chief Dr. Ron-Li Liaw said besides students working excessively to look good on paper, a lot of their mental-health issues are directly related to paying for college.

“Really, you have to ask how can anyone afford it. The price tag for college is really unattainable. You cannot budget for it like an electricity bill or rent or mortgage.”

With the current younger generations, Liaw said they are way ahead more than any other in terms of education, and yet due to costs and mental health, “they are still so far behind.”


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