The Forum | Costs

Intern Blog: To Stop Rising Tuition Costs, Look to the Data

August 16, 2016

It is no secret that the price of a bachelor’s degree has been rapidly rising, creating great strain for college students and their families. According to the Trends in College Pricing 2015 report published by the College Board, the price of tuition has increased 40% between 2005 and 2015, even after adjusting for inflation. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, tuition has grown 3.4% despite extremely low inflation rates. 

Observers have found a myriad of reasons for the problem, such as cost disease, high spending on college athletics, inefficient bureaucracies, and student activities. Government policies have also played a role. In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a report finding that schools more reliant on federal student loan programs have disproportionately increased their tuition. Others pointed to state spending cuts in public education after the Great Recession, which have shifted a larger portion of tuition onto students.

Student and taxpayer anger has risen with the costs, but that anger has also spawned some irrational solutions. The Million Student March movement, for example, demands tuition-free public college and the cancellation of all student debt. While students’ discontent is legitimate, these solutions are not. Tuition could be at zero cost to students, but someone would still need to foot the bill for the actual expenses.

Meaningful and lasting change starts from the bottom and seeks to make incremental improvements. Effective change starts with the data.

The metrics already exist. The Higher Education Act of 1965 requires any university receiving federal education funding to report yearly data to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) through its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), whose data can also be found on more consumer-friendly websites such as College Navigator.

IPEDS is a powerful tool, with over 250 variables and search options that can be used to extract raw data on nearly any college in the country. Other useful statistics including retention, graduation, and default rates; demographic distributions; and net prices, among other figures, can be found on College Navigator. High school seniors and their guidance counselors would benefit from examining these numbers during their college search process, as well as the raw data on IPEDS.

Indeed, a thoughtful look at the data on higher education expenditures should have students and trustees concerned. ACTA’s Getting What You Pay For? report found that, in 2012, 32 of the institutions reviewed by ACTA paid their president or chancellor as much or more than the President of the United States earns, and “public universities in Division I of the NCAA now spend three to six times as much on athletics per athlete than they spend on academics per student.”

College students need to look at such statistics, call for better accountability at the university-level, and ask their boards of trustees to do the same. The data are both readily available and a springboard for action. Students and trustees can quickly become the determinative voices that drive universities to cut costs and spend tuition dollars more efficiently.

This approach does not have the high drama of a wholesale cancellation of tuition and student debt. It requires asking difficult questions and brainstorming innovative solutions to cut costs without losing the instructional capacity that is the heart of the liberal arts. We must remember, however, the unique pluralism of American higher education. Nationwide, there are thousands of different institutions with different priorities and models of operation. Institutional change needs to be adaptive, unique, and designed by the administrations, students, and trustees they affect. The hard work of substantive reform is not flashy, but it is long overdue. 

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the third in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Emily is a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University. She is a working towards her degree in economics.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More