Heat Map: The Harsh Reality of American College Tuition

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  1. CollegeBoard Trends in Higher Education, http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-sector-state-time
  2. Mike Reilly, executive director of AACRAO, interviewed via email by author 2/4
  3. David Attis, senior director of academic research, Education Advisory Board, interviewed via email by author 2/3

Heat Map: Rise in Tuition

We hear about rising college tuition prices all the time, but the hard numbers might surprise you. Data from the College Board shows that tuition prices in some states in the country has not changed much over the last five years, while tuition in other states has increased more than 50 percent. Why the disparity, and what could it mean for you?

We put together the heat map above to illustrate the rising college tuition costs in each state over the last five years to give you a visual representation of how stable (or unstable) college costs are in your area, and across the nation. The percentages are based on data from the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges between the years of 2009 and 2014, which compiles tuition figures from public four-year in-state colleges. You'll notice that the warmer the colors get on the map, the bigger the tuition rate increase, with gray representing little change.

Big Trends

  • The Midwest and Northeast suffered the least in terms of skyrocketing tuition; Maine's tuition was the only state that did not increase at all.
  • The South, led by Louisiana, suffered the most with a staggering 54 percent rise in tuition. In other words, for a family with two students, one who began in 2009 and one who began in 2014, if the freshman year tuition for the first student was $10,000, it would have ballooned up to over $15,400 by the time the second student enrolled.
  • The West also saw big increases in tuition, with Arizona taking the title of second to worst place with a jump of 43%.

The Background Story

There's a story behind the numbers, according to Mike Reilly, executive director of AACRAO, an organization committed to advancing global higher education. "The states where tuition rose the most are those where the state funding cuts have been the largest," he says. He explains that public tuition had been historically low in the west where state subsidies were fairly high, often covering 70-80 percent of the cost of instruction. "As those states experienced state funding cuts of 50 percent or more, they have replaced that revenue with tuition," he says.

It is worth noting, says David Attis, senior director of academic research with the Education Advisory Board, that many of the states with the most increases started out with lower tuition rates than other states, so even though there have been increases, they are essentially just catching up to the tuition levels of other states. "Florida increased tuition by 33 percent, but ended up at $6,351, which is still among the lowest of any state (and less than a third of the most expensive states)," says Attis.

     "The states with the biggest increases in tuition - Louisiana, Georgia, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida - were also the ones with the biggest cuts to state higher education budgets over the past five years."

- David Attis, Senior Director of Academic Research with the Education Advisory Board

So why do northeast institutions seem to be immune to such drastic increases, despite budget cuts of their own? Reilly surmises that northeast states have had much higher percentages of non-resident students attending their state institutions and paying higher tuition rates, thus enabling states to keep resident tuition more stable.

The Future of Tuition Prices

As for whether or not we can expect to see tuition rates continue to rise over the next few years, Reilly says it's more likely that things will flatten out. "Tuition increases will likely be more stable unless we see significant changes in state funding again as Wisconsin, for example, has proposed," he says.

Attis feels that the states with the lowest tuition will continue increasing their tuition unless they can bring in more out of state and international students to boost revenue in the absence of significant state investments.

What You Can Do

Despite tuition increases, the cost of attending an in-state public institution is still among the better deals you can get. And if you do your homework, you'll find that that there are other affordable ways to pursue your higher education, as well. Start out by researching which schools were among the cheapest online colleges of 2014.

It might also benefit your wallet to look at online education in states with relatively low tuition prices, such as online colleges in New York and online colleges in Pennsylvania.

And, don't forget that although private universities are expensive, they often offer decent financial aid packages and merit scholarships to reduce their sticker prices. Remember, that a higher education is an investment, but investigating your options is the best way to ensure that you get the most for your money.

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