Barriers to Education – Cost

From the editor

View Articles
College is expensive; no one will deny that. According to CollegeBoard, in the past decade alone (2007-2017), tuition rates rose 26% at private nonprofit colleges and 37% at public four-year colleges. Those rates jump to 129% and 213% respectively when comparing current tuition with that of just 30 years ago, accounting for inflation. With no end in sight to the continual increase in the cost of an education, low and middle income students are facing more difficult choices than ever.

The rising cost of academia is forcing us to place a cost value on college education — an invaluable commodity. Is an education worth $45,000 in student loan debt? Is it worth going to your last-choice school because it’s the cheapest? Is it worth working two jobs and falling asleep in class to make tuition payments? These are just a few of the questions students must grapple with before setting foot on-campus or enrolling online. And for many, these questions are daunting enough to make them believe that college is not a serious option for them, no matter its value.

Students are experiencing sticker shock. What used to be the affordable options of two- and four-year public colleges are no longer easily paid for by part-time and summer jobs, and the threat of student loan debt looms ever present. For those who don’t have significant family financial contributions, college can suddenly seem very out of reach, which is why we wanted to use this edition of our Barriers in Education series to explore one of the largest deterrents to higher education: cost.

Our panel, comprised of college planning and financial aid experts from universities, non-profits, and financial institutions, spoke with us about how we can help students plan for college and take advantage of all the resources available to them. Emphasizing above all that students should wait to see what all their financial offers are before ruling out any schools — sometimes the school you least expect can offer you the most money. We cannot let rising costs become a discouraging barrier for students wishing to gain an education. Read on to learn about resources and support that can help student see the true value of a college education.

Data collected from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that tuition at public and private colleges is on the rise, and has been for decades. The average annual tuition at public schools rose from $2,196 in 1980 to almost $9,000 in 2015. According to The College Board, the average annual cost is now closer to $10,000, while private school rates increased from $9,882 to $34,740. Multiply these numbers by four years, or more, and it’s not hard to understand why cost alone may be enough to deter students from even applying.

Cost is also a primary consideration for students who decide to submit college applications. As a general guideline, Experts recommend applying to 4 to 8 schools, although this is a general guideline and it may be appropriate for some students to apply to fewer or more schools. But how many are able to attend their first-choice school when accepted? A 2016 study from Royall & Company found that 40 percent of students “who declined their dream school cited price-related concerns as the reason.” This finding was the same across income levels, minority status, and SAT scores. Affordability is a concern for everyone.

“Apply! Never close the door on a potential opportunity due to the unknown.”

– Ivette Chavez, Lead Financial Services Coordinator, CAP

Our panel has a central message for students who choose not to submit college applications for financial reasons: you are closing the door on opportunities you don’t even know about. Their advice includes avoiding assumptions about the availability of financial assistance, getting an early start, keeping an open mind, and becoming your own advocate.

Avoid Assumptions


There are many potential roadblocks to making decisions about applying to and paying for college, from not understanding the process to assuming it’s something it isn’t. The answer may not be obvious. For example, living at home and attending a community college may not be less expensive than living on campus at a college in another state. Each student and situation is unique.

“Just because a friend or family member could not afford to attend a school doesn’t mean that you can’t, even if your income level is the same.”

– Justin G. Roy, Dean of Admissions, Georgian Court University

An individual financial aid package can include a combination of funding sources, including federal grants, government and private loans, scholarships, and institutional aid (i.e., financial support from the school you are attending). Finding the true cost for each individual student is important; not everyone is paying for college in the same ways or amounts.

“You won’t know if you can’t afford to attend until you receive and review an award letter.”

– Holly Morrow, Senior Vice President of Knowledge, uAspire

Start Early


Applying for financial assistance often begins with filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, the process should begin before the FAFSA with research of specific colleges. Get this started during the junior year and include a range of schools (e.g., two- and four-year, local and out-of-state, public and private). Find out more about each school’s commitment to the financial support of students they accept, and gather the information needed to move forward. Identify what materials are needed for application materials and what scholarships are available, for example. There’s a learning curve to conducting the needed research, so allowing time to complete this work is essential.

“Unfortunately, increases to financial aid and personal income have not kept pace with rising tuition costs. That leaves a gap for most families that is difficult to address if they wait until their senior year of high school to prepare.”

– Abril Hunt, Outreach and Financial Literacy Manager, ECMC

Explore All Options and Resources


Panelist Justin Roy shared that his initial goal as a high school student was to attend a large college away from home. But after researching all of the costs associated with that path he decided to explore other options, ultimately finding the “perfect fit at a small, private school.” Be open-minded about what type of school you might attend and where it might be located.

“Today college pricing is confusing and abstract, making it extremely difficult for students to understand how much they are paying.”

– Nick Ducoff, Co-Founder and CEO, Edmit

It is also important to find and work with experts who are experienced with college admissions and financial aid procedures. Unfortunately, these processes can be complex, but no one has to go through them alone, and shouldn’t. Talk with teachers, high school counselors, college admissions advisors, financial aid officers, and local community and civic organizations for guidance, information, and referrals.

Ask Questions


Panelist and student Nigina Chege encourages students to become their own advocates. It is important to not only understand everything about the financial aid packages colleges offer you before signing to accept one, but also to know that you can continue to ask questions after you are enrolled.

Sit down with a financial aid advisor every year to review your funding support and make sure everything is in place. Students can also negotiate financial aid packages when they are offered, and then again each year. Ultimately, the cost of attending college falls on the student, whether or not he or she receives support from family, financial aid, or other sources. Don’t hesitate to speak up.

Paying for college is a daunting endeavor for many students and their families. However, resources and professional assistance are available to navigate the process from start to finish. Regardless of income, families stand to benefit from moving forward with college applications for students who are interested in higher education. You don’t know how much assistance a specific college will offer until you apply. College may or may not be the right path, but don’t let cost be the sole factor in a decision to apply or not to apply.

Resources for Further Reading


Trends in College Pricing 2017: Research from The College Board provides details about how tuition rates have changed, as well as comparisons by state and type of institution (i.e., public and private, two-year and four-year).

Financing Public Higher Education: Variation Across States: This report from the Urban Institute examines a wide range of financing variables at state-funded institutions, including state income levels and enrollment patterns.

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2013: Research from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at shows the impact of cost and financial aid on students’ decisions about college. Additional topics include diversity, number of applications submitted, and online learning.

Resources for Parents and Students

College Affordability and Transparency Center: This collection of resources from the U.S. Department of Education includes a net price calculator, state spending charts, and the College Scorecard, an easy-to-search database of college profiles focused on affordability.

An Introduction to 529 Plans: This guide from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission outlines the two types of plans – prepaid tuition and college savings. Additional information about fees and taxes is also provided.

College Planning Tools: This collection of resources is provided by SallieMae and includes loan repayment, college cost, and savings calculators, as well as a scholarship search and downloadable budget worksheets.

Federal Student Aid: The U.S. Department of Education provides a collection of resources to help parents plan for college. The materials include checklists for long-term planning, understanding college costs, and resources for completing the FAFSA.


Scholarships for Hispanic and Latino Students: This resource includes guidance for DACA students, as well as general information about scholarship applications. A list of funding opportunities includes scholarships specifically designated for hispanic students.

Scholarships for Students with Disabilities: This database of awards includes opportunities for those with a range of disabilities. This funding is made available by organizations such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America and the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

Scholarships for Single Mothers and Fathers: These scholarship opportunities are offered by a variety of sources including specific universities, private foundations, and others. Amounts awarded vary, and many have minimum GPA requirements for eligibility.

Let's Keep In Touch

Sign up to receive the latest news in higher education.

Page 1