A Somber Look At College Tuition Rates

Many times I try to caution people about the rude awakening they face when looking at the cost of college. I have a sister who is a senior who is going through the process now. Once you get over the shock, you may find a host of other feelings — such as anger, confusion and discouragement. Trust me, you are justified in these feelings!

A little over 15 years ago, I started college without a clue in regards to the entire process…especially the financial side of things. Although I did not look into a lot of different colleges to compare prices, I did realize that my first college was not going to work out for me financially. So I chose to transfer. This morning, I figured I would sit down and do a in-depth analysis as to whether or not I made the right decision from a financial perspective. It wasn’t fully what I expected either. Here’s what I found:

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

This was my first college. The tuition levels were high when I first stepped foot on campus in 1997; and today they are practically hear-attack inducing. Keep in mind, this is just for tuition…not for the fees, which can be another $10K per year for students in the school’s most popular major: aeronautical science (otherwise known as the “pilot program”).

Estimated tuition & fees at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University from 1998-2013

Estimated tuition & fees at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University from 1998-2013

Yes, you are in fact seeing this graph correctly in that I paid less than $15,000/yr to attend this school in the late 90s, and a student today should expect to pay more than $40,000/yr. Yikes. I say that because I struggled so much to come up with $15K; I wouldn’t know what to do if I had to come up with twice as much. :-(

But what is very interesting to see is that the room & board costs really haven’t grown all that much. I assume they’ve rose at the rate of inflation…unlike college tuition. As a student, I always thought that room & board expenses were an easy way for schools to pad their bottom line. But apparently I may have been mistaken here…

ERAU RB tuition

While I created this alternative graph for each school, I’ll only post the result for ERAU. The other graphs pretty much so the same thing. About a $4,000 – $6,000 increase in room & board costs in 15 years. That may sound bad, but when you break it down into a 9-month school year, it’s less than $1K per month. Which is pretty much in line with rent rates over the past 15 years.

It was really frustrating trying to research historical tuition rates at ERAU.  Like many colleges, ERAU has stopped publishing the tuition rates in the print course catalog; instead referring you to a URL. The problem with that is the URL is almost always a link to the current tuition rates; effectively deleting a reliable internet record of historical tuition rates. So I had to estimate tuition costs based on other sources, including web forum posts in order to come up with these figures.

University of Pittsburgh

I knew I wanted to transfer from ERAU in part because of the cost. I did consider the University of Pittsburgh, since I was a Pennsylvania resident at the time. However, I found out that I had missed the application deadline. However I do remember not being too bummed out about it, because my eventual school, West Virginia University, had a similar cost of attendance to Pitt.

Historical tuition rates at Pitt are easy to find; but cost of attendance figures are more elusive. But here’s what I came up with:

Tuition and estimated room & board figures for the University of Pittsburgh 1998-2013

Tuition and estimated room & board figures for the University of Pittsburgh 1998-2013

West Virginia University

Up until about five years ago, tuition and cost of attendance information was published in the WVU course catalog; which was valid for two years. They’ve stopped doing this and it’s a shame really because it is helpful to be able to see what you/students were paying while enrolled. Here’s the graph for WVU:

Estimated tuition and room & board at West Virginia University 1998-2013

Estimated tuition and room & board at West Virginia University 1998-2013

Ok, so looking at the data, WVU was almost $2K more in tuition in comparison to Pitt back in 1998. I may or may not have saved that on room & board (especially since my rent only ran $275/month). But still, the overall costs were pretty comparable. But what really surprises me is that the costs between WVU and Pitt are still pretty close; in spite of the drastic rise in out-of-state tuition rates at WVU. This is because percentage-wise, the tuition increases at Pitt are greater and the room & board costs at both schools is holding pretty steady.

Conclusion

Well I definitely didn’t make a mistake when I opted to transfer from Embry-Riddle. Especially when looking at tuition rates alone. Here’s a graph of just the tuition increases at all three schools:

Tuition rates at WVU, Pitt and ERAU from 1998-2013

Tuition rates at WVU, Pitt and ERAU from 1998-2013

Also, maybe it is just me; but it seems as if the tuition increases are manageable in 4-5 spurts. Then they seem to spike a bit (this was also apparent as I also looked at my graduate school rates…which I’ll tackle in another post). For, at both WVU & Pitt between 1998-2003, tuition only increased moderately. Which supports the advice that it really pays (literally) to spend as least time in college as possible and look for ways to graduate early.

Another thing that became quite obvious to me is that the finances of college that I knew about in the late 90s is very different than what is going on today. My sister and I have 16 years between us, and I’ve already realized that much of my anecdotal experience is outdated. This is even more so in regards to parents and their children (since most parents have more than 16 years on their children!). This is why I caution people, who are baby-boomers especially, about berating new college students about student loans and how they should be working to pay their way through college. In most cases, the idea of working part-time to pay your way through college are long behind us.

ERAU WVU Pitt
1998 tuition: $11,000/year 1998 out-of-state tuition: $8,220/year 1998 in-state engineering tuition: $6,316/year
2013 tuition: $30,720/year 2013 out-of-state tuition: $18,860/year 2013 in-state engineering tuition: $16,780/year
179% increase 129% increase 166% increase

From this it is pretty clear to see that in 20 years, we should expect to see 200% tuition increases. This basically means that tuition prices will be 4 times as expensive for new college students than they were for their predecessors a generation ago. So here are my five points of advice:

  1. If you feel you are paying too much for college, and you see a less expensive alternative that will work for you; strongly consider transferring!
  2. Tuition increases are almost inevitable. They may be small or they may be significant. Nevertheless, you will pay more in your senior year than you did in your freshman year (if you stay at the same school).
  3. The in-state vs. out-of-state question is not as clear cut as it seems. If anything, you’re more likely to remain eligible for more financial aid if you remain in your home state.
  4. “Expensive private schools” tend to remain expensive. Don’t assume the gap between private and public tuitions will narrow. So while public universities can always try to justify their tuition hikes by showing how government support is being scaled back; I don’t know justification private institutions give. Except maybe just looking at the average tuition rates of public institutions…and automatically adding $XYZ dollars on top of that!
  5. Don’t linger in college. The worse is to drop out without a degree. But make it a priority to graduate. Lingering in college for 6, 7 or 8 years is a big waste. Unless you’ve managed to lock in your original tuition rate, you’ll be paying a premium on coursework you could have completed years ago for much less. Those who are born later than you can’t help it. But you can…and make it a goal to finish your degree less than 5 years after you’ve taken your first college class.

For the rest of you out there that went to college more than 10 years ago….I dare you to take a look at the tuition at your alma mater. What is it now compared to what you paid? If you do, you’ll most likely be very thankful that you graduated when you did!