Weighing the Cost and Value of a College Decision

Posted on July 24, 2013 by Courtney Clemmons

It’s no secret that college can be expensive, especially for the middle class and those striving to get into the middle class. In the face of state budget cuts, institutions of higher education are faced with difficult choices about how best to incur these costs.  Unfortunately, many times these costs are passed on to students in the form of tuition increases.  In the 2012-2013 school year alone, tuition increased by an average of 4.8% at in-state public colleges. This leads to uncertainty for students as the cost of attendance will often increase greatly from the time they enter college to the time they graduate; making it difficult for students to make informed financial decisions regarding their education, or discouraging some from attending at all.  Since 1981, tuition costs have greatly outpaced the rate of inflation. The graph below from the Bureau of Labor Statistics displays the continual rise in college costs as compared to inflation.    


The Administration recognizes that slowing the growth in tuition requires shared responsibility among multiple actors.  For instance, states can’t keep cutting and balancing budgets on the backs of students and institutions need to be more productive and make better use of their budgets.

However, students also have the power to make smart choice and choose institutions based on value, and the Department has made great strides in helping students make those smart choices.  For instance, the College Affordability and Transparency Center allows students to compare institutions costs and percentage changes in state spending on higher education. The College Navigator is also a great tool to compare types of institutions, ranking them by cost of attendance and dozens of other categories. Also, if students receive financial aid or scholarships, the Department offers a net price calculator, which helps students determine the actual amount they will pay for their college education. Using the net price calculator, students are able to assess how much they need to save in order to cover the remaining cost of attendance. 

While college costs can be a major strain on families and individuals, many choose to invest in higher education because they know that there will be a good return on their investment. The tools provided by the Department of Education inform and educate students and families and allow them to make informed decisions in the college selection process. Making a decision on where to attend college should not be based on school notoriety nor “sticker shock”, but instead on the value of the program, affordability, type of institution, and the overall fit for the student. We encourage everyone to utilize these tools to inform their decisions and ensure they are making the best choice for their unique situation. When students are more educated about their college options, we move closer to meeting the President’s 2020 goal.

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