The Cost of College Has Risen 26% at Public Universities in the Past Decade — And Even Higher in 37 States

 August 12, 2021
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College has been expensive for a long time. Though proposals and campaigns have called for free or discounted higher education, the days of major legislation — like the GI Bill, which expanded college accessibility for wide swaths of the population — are behind us for now.

Without legislative intervention, affording college may get increasingly difficult as tuition and fees continue to rise. Student Loan Hero researchers found tuition rose 26% at public colleges, 26% at private colleges and 20% at public and private colleges between 2010-2011 and 2019-2020.

Tuition increases only worsened at the state level, with in-state tuition at public four-year universities rising by 99% in Louisiana and more than 50% in several other states. See where tuition has increased the most — and the least — in the past decade.

Key findings

  • The cost of tuition and fees rose across the board. Tuition jumped 26% at public colleges, 26% at private colleges and 20% at public and private colleges between 2010-2011 and 2019-2020.
  • Louisiana had the largest increase in tuition costs over the past 10 years. Tuition at public four-year institutions averaged $9,358 in 2019-2020, a 99% increase from $4,702 in 2010-2011. In the same period, West Virginia and Mississippi followed with 62% and 57%
  • Washington had the smallest increase in in-state tuition costs. Tuition in the Evergreen State rose just 5% between 2010-2011 and 2019-2020 — the only state to record a single-digit increase.
  • Rises in median rent won’t predict tuition costs. Though Washington had the smallest in-state tuition increase in the period examined, it had the second-highest median gross rent increase (50%) between 2010 and 2019, behind Colorado at 59%.

State by state, tuition climbs faster

While tuition at private and public colleges rose 20% at the national level between 2010-2011 and 2019-2020, costs for public schools and private schools alone each jumped 26%.

Those figures were even more staggering at the state level. In general, an in-state public school could be the cheapest sticker price for students. Even still, these costs jumped a whopping 36% on average across each of the 50 states. And out-of-state public school tuition similarly rose by an average of 35%.

The coronavirus crisis may have brought further attention to the steep cost of college, with some schools charging full price for online-only programming. But, so far, it hasn’t led to sweeping overhauls to improve affordability. Student Loan Hero senior writer Andrew Pentis thinks it may take more than a pandemic to change the trajectory of tuition costs.

“The cost of college has steeply and steadily risen faster than any other consumer expenditure for decades now,” Pentis says. “It’s hard to imagine that trend line slowing down once we truly have the pandemic’s end in sight.”

Southern states saw the largest tuition increases this decade

Though a 36% tuition rise across all 50 states was certainly significant, that average paled in comparison to the states with the highest increases. Louisiana nearly doubled its average in-state tuition from $4,702 in 2010-2011 to $9,358 in 2019-2020 — a 99% jump.

West Virginia saw the next-highest in-state tuition increase at 62%. The 10 states whose in-state tuition increased by the most averaged a 57% hike.

Of those states, seven were in the South, including each of the top five — Louisiana, West Virginia, Mississippi, Virginia and Tennessee.

10 states with the highest percentage increases for in-state tuition from 2010-2011 to 2019-2020
Rank State 2010-2011 in-state tuition 2019-2020 in-state tuition Change
1 Louisiana $4,702 $9,358 99%
2 West Virginia $4,944 $8,016 62%
3 Mississippi $5,301 $8,340 57%
4 Virginia $8,658 $13,413 55%
5 Tennessee $6,407 $9,789 53%
6 Alaska $5,578 $8,396 51%
7 Oklahoma $5,244 $7,866 50%
8 Hawaii $6,635 $9,952 50%
9 Alabama $6,808 $10,138 49%
10 Connecticut $8,854 $12,959 46%
Average across 50 states $7,248 $9,743

Notably, in-state tuition in each of the top 10 states except Virginia and Connecticut fell below the average across the 50 states in 2010-2011. Across all states, in-state tuition averaged $7,248 in 2010-2011, compared with $8,658 in Virginia and $8,854 in Connecticut.

By 2019-2020, Tennessee, Hawaii and Alabama joined Virginia and Connecticut among those states with higher-than-average costs.

“It does make sense that states and regions with historically lower costs of living have the most room, so to speak, to grow their consumer prices,” Pentis says.

Smallest tuition changes spread across the U.S.

Naturally, every state increased tuition over the years examined, but some by just a fraction of the national average. Washington recorded the smallest increase, raising in-state tuition by just 5% from 2010-2011 to 2019-2020 — the only state to report a single-digit percentage increase.

10 states with the lowest percentage increases for in-state tuition from 2010-2011 to 2019-2020
Rank State 2010-2011 in-state tuition 2019-2020 in-state tuition Change
1 Washington $6,678 $7,036 5%
2 Delaware $9,646 $10,607 10%
3 California $7,357 $8,118 10%
4 Maine $8,876 $9,930 12%
5 Wisconsin $7,391 $8,697 18%
6 Ohio $8,501 $10,068 18%
7 Florida $3,720 $4,443 19%
8 Missouri $7,120 $8,554 20%
9 Indiana $7,614 $9,225 21%
10 Montana $5,753 $6,972 21%
Average across 50 states $7,248 $9,743

The 10 states with the smallest increases raised in-state prices by an average of 16%, less than half the rate across the 50 states.

Only four of the 10 states with the smallest increases — Washington, Florida, Missouri and Montana — reported in-state tuition lower than the average across the 50 states in 2010-2011.

By 2019-2020, only Delaware, Maine and Ohio (among these 10 states) recorded average in-state tuition costs exceeding the average.

Higher tuition doesn’t mean steeper rent

For some students, the cost of living in a college’s surrounding area may play a role in financially preparing for school. Students interested in living off campus might consider whether renting is cheaper than the school’s room and board costs. And while the costs are likely related, there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between local tuition and rent increases.

Louisiana, for example, may have seen the biggest average in-state tuition increase of all the states but only an 18% increase in median gross rent from $736 in 2010 to $886 in 2019. On the contrary, Washington may have seen the smallest tuition increase in the country, but it gets dwarfed by the second-largest median rent increase, 50% ($908 in 2010 to $1,359 in 2019).

Overall, the 10 states with the highest tuition increases from 2010 to 2019 saw rent rise by an average of 23%, compared with 27% for the 10 states with the smallest tuition increases. Similarly, median gross rent costs increased an average of 27% across the 50 states over this time, at least partially negating the idea that tuition increases affect rent jumps or vice versa.

Predicting college costs

A federal plan to assist students in paying for college might not be the best or only answer to the rising cost of college tuition.

“An uptick in federal financial aid typically leads colleges and universities to increase their prices, not decrease them,” Pentis says.

The good news is new student loan borrowing has been trending downward for the last decade because of several factors, including increased financial aid and better-informed consumers. But those preparing to pay for or attend college can help themselves by finding as much information they can about what they might expect to owe for a future education.

“Many argue that higher education — and how we finance it — is in for a real revolution in the coming decade, but it’s hard to find short-term signs that tuition prices will stagnate,” Pentis says.

Whatever happens in the near or further future, it’s always a good idea to start saving early and exploring scholarship or financial aid opportunities before you have to apply for student loans. There are many ways to reduce college costs, from finding more affordable housing to renting instead of borrowing textbooks. While waiting for major changes from colleges or governments, consumers have to take it upon themselves to find ways to save.

Published in Research