College Tuition Inflation Statistics

Public college tuition increased an average of 5% a year between 2001 and 2021. Read about the tuition inflation rate in recent years and decades past.
portrait of Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and data writer for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evaluati...
Updated on October 2, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Rebecca Long
Rebecca Long
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Rebecca Long is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has nearly a decade of editorial experience, including writing and editing. As a freelance journalist, her work has been published in The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Slate, and others. She has also ...
Fact-checked by Marley Rose
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: Marko Geber / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Data Summary

  • Check
    Tuition at four-year colleges increased by 3.8% in the 2021-2022 academic year.[1]
  • Check
    Between 2001 and 2021, the average annual tuition inflation was 5% at public four-year colleges.Note Reference [1]
  • Check
    Over the same period, the consumer price index only rose by about 1.7% yearly on average[2], and the median home price rose by 1.9% annually on average.[3]
  • Check
    Tuition inflation was highest in the 1980s when tuition and fees rose an average of 9.7% yearly at four-year schools and 8.4% yearly at two-year schools.Note Reference [1]

Y2K fashion may be back in style, but the tuition prices of 20 years ago are long gone. In 2000, the average annual tuition at a four-year public college was less than $4,000. Today, it's $9,600.Note Reference [1]

In recent years, tuition inflation has slowed somewhat, but tuition prices keep climbing. The cost of college makes a difference in who can access higher education and how much student loan debt individuals take on.

This report uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to track tuition inflation — that is, how much tuition prices have increased over the years. We'll also compare the rising cost of college to market, housing, and income inflation.

How Much Has College Tuition Increased?

NCES records the average tuition at all degree-granting institutions. According to NCES, the annual tuition rate increase at four-year colleges has stayed under 3% at public colleges in recent years. It's generally been higher at private schools.

College tuition inflation basically paused in the 2020-2021 school year, but it ticked up again in 2021-2022.

College Tuition Inflation Vs. Other Cost Inflation

In the past 20 years, college tuition and fees have grown twice as fast as the consumer price index (CPI) — a measure of what people pay for market goods like food and gas and a proxy for inflation. CPI inflation was nearly 54% from September 2001-September 2021.Note Reference [2] Tuition inflation was 66%.Note Reference [1]

Since 2000, college tuition has also grown more than the median household income and home price.

For most of the past several years, college tuition has increased faster than inflation. That has only changed recently.

Even accounting for inflation by measuring in 2021-2022 constant dollars, the average tuition at four-year colleges rose 62% at public schools and 32% at private schools between 2001 and 2021.

Which Decade Saw the Highest College Tuition Inflation?

Compared to other decades, the 1980s saw the highest tuition hikes. During this decade, tuition and fees rose an average of 9.7% per year at four-year schools and 8.4% each year at two-year schools.

College Tuition Inflation Rate Over Time

While tuition prices have soared over the past 20 years, tuition inflation has generally decreased. In other words, tuition is rising slower than it used to.

According to data from NCESNote Reference [1]:

  • The average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities rose 13.4% in 2003. It rose 2.4% in 2021.
  • The average tuition and fees at public two-year colleges rose 14.8% in 2003 and just 1.7% in 2020.

Over the past twenty years, tuition inflation has been slightly higher at public colleges and universities than at private ones. It has also been higher at four-year schools than at two-year schools.Note Reference [1]

  • On average, from 2001-2021, tuition and fees rose 5% a year at public four-year colleges and 3.8% a year at private four-year colleges.
  • In the same period, the average tuition inflation rate was 4.8% per year at public two-year colleges and 3% at private two-year colleges.

Why Is College Tuition Inflation So High?

The money colleges make from tuition supports many different functions of the school — like staffing, building upkeep, and technology. So it makes sense that the cost of college rises with the consumer price index. But why would tuition inflation be higher than market inflation?

There are likely several reasons why college is so expensive, from variations in state funding to increased spending on student services and administration costs. Also, college prices aren't capped in the U.S. That means that a college could technically charge whatever amount they want if they think students will pay.

If you're wondering how you'll pay for college, you have options, like scholarships and grants. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify for grants from your school.