February 19, 2019

Why College Costs Keep Climbing

author photoBy Irina Seceleanu, Colby King, Maria Hegbloom

Irina Seceleanu is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Bridgewater State University and the BSU Chapter Vice-President of the faculty union—Massachusetts State College Association. Maria Hegbloom is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Bridgewater State University and the BSU Chapter President of the faculty union—Massachusetts State College Association.

Growing up, we heard a lot about how school would be easier for either of us than it was for our parents and grandparents. “These days,” they’d say, “kids have it easy. The teachers are great, the schools have resources. When I was your age, I had to walk to school, in snow, uphill both ways!”

Maybe you’ve heard similar things about college today? Your campus likely has fantastic professors, maybe a few new buildings, and plenty of student services. If you’re at a public institution, especially a regional comprehensive university like Bridgewater State University (BSU) in Massachussetts that is known for small class sizes, teaching-focused professors, and lower tuition costs, you might also note the relatively affordable price compared to other nearby institutions.

While this is all true, it glosses over the economic realities for many college students today. You might not be walking to school in snow (most days), but even at public institutions the costs of college seem to be climbing both ways: student fees and student debt keep rising, and today students are working harder than ever just to get to class. These increasing costs make college more difficult for everyone, but particularly for students who go to college with fewer financial resources.

Part of developing a sociological imagination is understanding how context shapes opportunities, and we’ve gathered some information about how changes in state funding have increased the costs of college for many students. Many students who choose public institutions like BSU do so at least in part because it is relatively inexpensive compared to other nearby institutions, particularly private institutions. But this affordability does not mean a lower-quality education. Rather, the affordability of a public college education stems from the state’s commitment that college should be available to all citizens regardless of financial standing, because accessible higher education benefits everyone. This is the reason that states spend money in public higher education institutions.

But, looking around the country, we see many problematic symptoms that result from disinvestment in public higher education. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that state funding for higher education remains well below pre-2008 recession levels and that the average annual published tuition at four-year public colleges increased $2,484, or 35 percent, from 2008 to 2017.

At Wright State University in Ohio, a dramatic three-week faculty strike just ended after bargaining that hinged in part on funding, faculty health care, and costs of higher education. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which enrolls roughly 107,000 students across 14 campuses, has seen tuition increases of between 2.5 to 7.5% each year since 2008, according to the system’s Office of the Chancellor’s budget information.

Even in South Carolina, where student debt is 35% lower than the national average, tuition increased regularly over the last 20 years, though last year’s increase was the smallest in that system during the last two decades, according to an editorial in The State by the President of the University of South Carolina. President Harris Pastides is now urging his state’s government to support a bipartisan bill that would establish a dedicated source of funding for higher education and slow the rise of tuition costs.

We also dug into the data in Massachusetts, to better understand how changes here have impacted our students. In Massachusetts, our state’s commitment to higher education is especially important because more than half of high school graduates in Massachusetts who go on to college attend a public, rather than private, university. Moreover, graduates from a public colleges are much more likely to stay in Massachusetts and contribute to our economy, communities, and state.

As the graph below shows (retrieved from a March 2008 report from the Mass Budget and Policy Center) 60% of graduates of Massachusetts public institutions ended up working in Massachusetts, while the majority of those graduating from private universities left the state for work elsewhere. So, when our state provides funding for public higher education, it means that the residents of the state, the taxpayers, are investing in students like you and in the overall economic health of the Commonwealth.

state employment of graduates in Massachusetts

Fig. 1 State employment of graduates in MA

Source: Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center

While this certainly seems like a worthwhile investment, since 2001 state funding for public higher education has decreased substantially. The same report shows that state spending on public higher education dropped by 32% from $12,500 per student in 2001 to only $8,500 in 2018, after adjusting for inflation.

What does this cut in funding mean for students in Massachusetts? As the state cut funding, campuses were forced to increase tuition and fees on their students in order to keep offering the same high-quality education. This increase means, of course, that students’ face higher and higher personal costs each year for attending college.

And to make matters worse, over the same time that Massachusetts cut funding overall to public higher education, the state also cut funding for scholarship programs for students. So just as tuition and fee costs have increased for students, state scholarship funding for students attending public higher education dropped from $150 million in 2001 to only $102 million in 2018 when adjusted for inflation.

All of this means that students are shouldering more and more of the costs of their college education. When you compare the costs of a semester of tuition and fees at an institution like BSU in 2001 and 2018 and relate that to the state’s minimum wage, you can better understand just how much more of a burden today’s students are shouldering. We calculated that in 2018 students working at the state minimum wage needed to work more than 30 hours per week to cover the costs of tuition and fees. This is two and a half times as many hours as students had to work to cover tuition and fees in 2001.


In-state tuition and fees for one semester at BSU

Minimum wage in MA

Hours of work at min wage to pay for semester

Hours per week needed for a 15 week semester











Tab. 1 Hours per week needed to pay for tuition and fees at BSU

You probably already know that working 30 hours a week can make it very difficult to focus on your studies and that in addition to the other costs of housing, transportation, and food, it is very difficult to simply pay your way through college. So many students end up taking on student loans and other debt in order to cover these costs. In fact, the number of students who take out loans has increased sharply as has the amount of these loans. Between 2003-04 and 2015-16, average student debt for those attending a public 4-year college in Massachusetts increased by 77% with the average graduate leaving with $30,248 in student loans.

average student debt for grads of public 4-year colleges in MA who took out student loans

Fig. 2 Average student debt for grads of public 4-year colleges in MA

Source: MA Budget and Policy Center

This sharp increase in student loan debt meant that Massachusetts went from having the second lowest average student loan debt in the US in 2004 to having one of the highest student loan debt averages by 2016.

average student loan debts from public four-year colleges 2014
average student loan debt of graduates from public 4-year colleges 2016

Fig. 3 MA ranking in the US based on average student loan for graduate of public 4-year colleges

Source: Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center

Higher tuition and fees and more student loan debt means that the state has shifted a large portion of the responsibility of funding higher education onto students. In Massachusetts this resulted in nearly doubling students’ share of the cost from about 30 to 60 percent. This has meant that students work longer hours at their jobs, face hardships in covering the costs of housing and food, increased difficulty to complete their degrees, and take on more student loans which will follow them well beyond graduation. Strikingly, today between 33% and 40% of students in an average public higher education class are unsure where they will get their next meal (according to a report from the Wisconsin HOPE Center).

It does not have to be this way. These increased costs are the result of specific choices, made by those in positions of power in each state’s government, about how that state does (or does not) invest in public higher education; choices about how that state does (or does not) invest in students like you.

We see our state experiencing a crisis in our public education system, and our state is not alone. Massachusetts’ disinvestment from public higher education not only burdens our students, it has meant that the opportunities for college are less open to students who face financial difficulties, particularly working class and minority college students.

A restoration of funding to 2001 levels would make a big difference in addressing these problems. The Fund Our Future campaign calculates that $574 million is how much our state has underfunded public universities and colleges in Massachusetts. We hope that seeing these numbers helps students and the general public see how this disinvestment in public higher education in Massachusetts and other states has had a severe impact on student’s ability to afford public higher education, and more broadly has led to significant structural changes to public higher education.

So, what can you do ?

If you live near Bridgewater, the faculty union at BSU along with other educator unions across the state are organizing a community forum at BSU with our state legislators in support of the Fund Our Future campaign on February 26th 3:30-5:00 pm in DMF 120. This campaign introduces legislation that would restore the funding of public higher education and seeks to encourage our state legislators to change their choices and actions around public education funding in the state. You can join us at the community forum at BSU, or look for other Fund Our Future forums happening all over the state of Massachusetts.

If you’re outside of Massachusetts and interested in pursuing these issues in your state, you can raise your concerns with your institution’s management, reach out to local higher education organizations, and contact your local representatives. It is only through grassroots organizing that we can make a difference and ensure that students in our states have access to affordable, quality public higher education. So, even if students today are not walking uphill in the snow both ways to school, we still need to speak up and tell our state representatives to invest in our students again and to fund our nation’s future.  

QR code for signing up to the Fund Our Future forum at BSU:

Qr code


It is sad to know that some states are experiencing a crisis in the public education system. It is not right that students are now shouldering more if not most of the costs of their college education. Something has to be done.

Thank you for sharing the detailed post and show us the difference and reason. The college cost, the price, the living cost keeps climbing while salary doesn't. Existing is so hard.

Truly helpful information. It's very important to understand these things right now. Thanks a lot!

Contrary to narratives featuring price gouging higher education institutions, much of the high price of higher education is a simple matter of supply and artificially inflated demand.

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