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The Dartmouth
May 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Jackson: Sticker Shocked

Colleges are shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to tuition costs.

As yet another admissions cycle wraps up, students across the country and world are making big decisions about their futures. Some will enter immediately into the workforce, while others will be drawn to professional training through trade schools or military service. For the majority of Americans, however, high school graduation signals the start of additional schooling at a college or university. It is concerning that a contingent of those students will have their plans derailed not by grades or test scores, but by ballooning tuition costs.

The increasing base price of college in recent years is a startling trend. College price hikes have far outpaced expected growth based on inflation. For example, the thirty-year inflation rate on typical goods and services in the U.S. between 1994 and 2024 was roughly 11%. Since 1994, however, the total cost of a single year at a public college for an in-state student has risen by about 332.384%, from $6,870 to $28,840. These statistics raise the question of why college tuition has become so much more comparatively expensive.

If asked about rising tuition prices, colleges and universities typically pin increases on factors such as rising faculty salaries and student housing costs. Many administrators believe the increase in cost is warranted, as they need the money to provide the services that they offer to their students. However, when asked to explain how much rising faculty salaries or student housing costs directly contribute to the rise in tuition, they’re frequently less than eager to answer. While the rise in cost has been pronounced at public institutions, price increases have certainly been felt at private colleges as well, including at top schools like Dartmouth.

As opposed to their public counterparts, the current average cost for one year of education at a private college sits comfortably at $60,420 — a more than $40,000 increase from $16,602 in 1994. Just this year, Vanderbilt University turned heads when its cost for a single year of education topped out at nearly $100,000. Perhaps even more shockingly, a financial columnist from The New York Times was unable to get anyone from the administration to break down exactly where money was being spent, nor could he get a straight answer on how the school’s spending per undergraduate student — which stands at $119,000 — was calculated.

Dartmouth and its Ivy League peers aren’t far behind Vanderbilt, with the cost of attendance for a first-year Dartmouth student being around $91,312 for the upcoming 2024-2025 school year. Of course, raw numbers don’t tell the full story, and as Dartmouth proudly boasts on its website, the average scholarship amounts to roughly $67,000 — more than half the estimated cost of attendance. But regardless of that fact, for many families, especially those from lower-income backgrounds, financial aid does not fully cover other costs of attending Dartmouth.

For example, this estimate doesn’t account for things such as health insurance, technology and travel costs, to name a few. At a school like Dartmouth, students — especially low-income students — may end up paying thousands of dollars in other fees associated with attending college, costs that the school does not fully subsidize. Given the fact that 45% of Dartmouth students come from families with incomes in the top 5%, it’s valid to seriously question if the increase in price has caused some strong candidates from low-income backgrounds to reconsider submitting their applications. These concerns over rising tuition are significant before we even begin to consider the question of the value of a college degree.

It’s no secret that the utility of a college diploma isn’t what it used to be in terms of predicted earning power. If colleges are going to ask students to contribute the equivalent of the average home in some states for their education, it’s imperative that they prove that education is an equally valuable investment. And considering that, since 2018, the United States has seen its steepest slide ever in its college enrollment rate, it doesn’t seem that colleges have made a very good pitch. While Ivy League schools may be successful at maintaining high numbers of applicants and high enrollment rates through name recognition and strong alumni networks, a growing contingent of students scared off by their staggering costs may catch up to them sooner than they’d like.

As Dartmouth students, we are relatively lucky in terms of financial access, especially after an unprecedented $150 million bequest last month which significantly raised the ceiling for zero expected parental contribution. Still, the cost of attendance, as laid out on Dartmouth’s website, has become even more daunting than before. At this point in time, colleges must find a way to slow down the exponential increase in costs. If they don’t, it may not just be newly accepted students whose future plans end up being derailed by prohibitive costs — it may be the colleges themselves.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.