What’s Really Driving Higher Tuition Costs?

recent article on statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight reinforced an important message about rising college tuition costs both in Colorado and the nation: Tuition increases over the last several years have been primarily driven by significant reductions in state funding for public higher education.

Unfortunately, the data in that article initially caused a local news site to report that Colorado has the highest in-state tuition in the country. That’s not true, and we’re very glad to see that that misperception has been explained and clarified. It’s worth repeating Colorado does not have the highest average in-state tuition in the country, although the fact that the rate of increase at our public four-year institutions over the last several years has been one of the highest in the country means that this statistical correction provides cold comfort. This rising cost of tuition and fees is something we need to closely watch.

For further context on where we actually stand on tuition and fees, it’s interesting to look at Colorado compared to our western neighbors. Data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education show the average in-state tuition and fees at Colorado’s public four-year institutions are $9,525 – below the average for both Washington state and Arizona, but above most other western states:

Source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, “Tuition and Fees in the West 2015-16,” Policy Insights, May 2016, http://www.wiche.edu/policy_insights.

Similarly, for Colorado’s two-year public institutions, the average tuition and fees are $4,025 — less than Washington, North Dakota, Oregon, and South Dakota, but more than the bulk of our other western neighbors:

Source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, “Tuition and Fees in the West 2015-16,” Policy Insights, May 2016, http://www.wiche.edu/policy_insights.

What does all this mean for college affordability in Colorado? For starters, it means that even though Colorado isn’t No. 1 in tuition and fees, many of our students and families struggle with the rising cost of postsecondary education. That’s particularly true for our fellow Coloradans who are working hard to enter, or stay in, the middle class.

It also means Colorado is really a poster case for the main message of the FiveThirtyEight article – tuition costs are rising for students and families primarily because of cuts to state funding for higher education. We’ve stressed that point in our “Understanding Colorado’s Fiscal Challenges in 14 Charts.” The chart below illustrates this troubling relationship in Colorado over the last several years and our growing reliance on tuition for supporting the state’s higher education system:

The bottom line is this: The pattern of shifting costs from the state to students and families is simply not sustainable. That’s why we here at the Bell Policy Center continue to urge increased state investment in higher education, including need-based financial aid. It’s also why we remain committed to being a voice for Colorado’s students and families in the postsecondary policy arena.

Being No. 1 in tuition costs isn’t our state’s reality, but being No. 1 in solutions for making college affordable for all Coloradans and expanding economic opportunity in our state is what the Bell Policy Center is all about.

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