What’s driving up tuition, fees at many colleges? It’s this economic monster

Inflation is inflicting financial pain on families across the nation, and higher education is not immune.

What is the single biggest worry facing higher education leaders and boards right now? Is it the enrollment cliff? Or retention? Or perhaps filling residential housing or the mental health crisis of their students?

Or maybe it’s this:

“We’re facing another endemic problem of hyperinflation, and that’s going to hit us in many regards,” Robert Manning, Board of Trustees Chair for the University of Massachusetts said during a recent meeting. “It’s going to increase the cost of our debt financing. It’s going to increase food costs at all of our campuses. It’s going to increase labor costs and energy costs, and it’s really going to be another difficult period where we’re going to have to be very fiscally responsible to get through this.”

Even with steps like a 2.5% increase in tuition at UMass, there are concerns that might not be enough to offset the perfect storm of financial impacts about to clobber institutions. Manning said more unpopular decisions likely will be coming but will be necessary for UMass to keep its “fiscal house in order.”

Inflation, currently at around 8.5% and the highest since the early 1980s, is affecting the cost of just about everything—from food to gas to housing. Wary of driving a stake between students and the academy, many institutions were able to hold the line on tuition and fees over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic—or come close to it—keeping enrollments from plummeting further. But now, they say they don’t have a choice but to impose increases, even slight ones to offset doomsday financial scenarios.

Seattle University, for example, is raising its tuition by 3.75%, which officials say is still better than what they were projecting. Still, with a new commitment to healthcare, compensation for faculty and a huge outlay toward financial aid, the inevitable had to happen for 2022-23. Its fees also will rise by $300 next year, the first increase in a decade. “We have sought to keep these tuition and fee increases in line with the more modest increases of recent years while continuing to invest in the overall quality and excellence of your education and student experience,” Seattle University president Eduardo Penalver said. “With costs increasing due to inflation and the rising cost of living in the greater Seattle area, this is a challenging balance to strike.”

Idaho’s public universities have kept tuition levels for 2022-23—against what one student body president warned was a “sandbag trying to stop a tsunami”—but fees are going up at all colleges. At Boise State, there’s a more than $300 increase targeted to mental health and to equity. But most are being imposed to cover a 5% increase in salaries for employees. The good news is that applications for next year have been up and enrollments increased this past year.

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Syracuse University has promised a 9% increase in financial aid and more attention to both graduate assistants and health and wellness. As a result, the university is increasing its tuition by 4.5% to more than $58,000. That might be less than inflation, but since 2017-18, the cost of attending has jumped by $13,000. The university did decrease its board rates for 2022-23 but is tacking on $40 per student toward the wellness fee, which is now more than $800.

Cost increases, no matter how minor, have met with resistance from students across the country who have expressed worries about affordability as they see first-hand the rising prices on everyday items along with hikes in living expenses. It is one of the reasons why Purdue University and the University of Maine are keeping tuition costs level again for next year, too. In Maine, the state provided a bailout with nearly $8 million in supplemental funding for the system. Purdue hasn’t increased tuition in a decade, while Maine has only done so three times in the past 10 years. In Georgia, legislators also increased their budgets to ensure that students wouldn’t have to pay more to attend state public institutions.

But short of additional help—higher education enjoyed a massive windfall from the federal government in 2020 as a result of the pandemic–for some institutions, raising tuition is the only alternative. Montclair State in New Jersey is planning as much as a 5% increase in its tuition and fees, and Virginia Commonwealth is looking at a 3% increase. Arizona State University is raising tuition by 4%, while Northern Arizona University’s is going up by 3.5%. All three state schools, including the University of Arizona, are increasing fees, housing and dining plan costs.

Some regional universities, despite much lower tuition for students than private institutions, have been among the hardest hit in terms of enrollment drops since the start of the pandemic. In Oregon, nearly all of its institutions experienced declines, and all of them are still raising tuition, from Oregon Tech (7%) to the University of Oregon (4.5%) to Western Oregon (3.19%). Several Michigan universities have reported painful declines nearing 30%.

While several community colleges across the U.S. have raised prices for the coming year, one decided to keep it almost flat—each credit hour will be an additional $1 dollar for those attending. Grand Rapids Community College’s trustees made the call, knowing the hardships that students are facing. “Our world has changed in many ways since most of our students were on campus, and we are working to support them as they face new challenges,” Board of Trustees Chair David Koetje said. “This budget reflects our commitment to ensuring that students of all ages across West Michigan have access to the quality education they’ll need to move forward.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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