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Why Does Higher Ed Cost So Much? College Presidents Explain

By Andrew Smalley and Austin Reid  |  September 20, 2022

The United States spends more on higher education per student than nearly any other country in the world. Even though increases in financial aid have helped keep prices in check for low- and middle-income students at many institutions, the actual costs of providing a higher education continue to outpace inflation year after year, and higher education revenues reached an all-time high in 2020.

“The things that drive costs in higher education are really the same things that drive costs for any other industry or employer: The most expensive thing in higher education is people,” University of Colorado President Todd Saliman told attendees at the 2022 Legislative Summit session “Why Does College Cost So Much?” “It takes people to educate people, and that is the primary driver of costs for all of us.”

The things that drive costs in higher education are really the same things that drive costs for any other industry or employer. —Todd Saliman, president, University of Colorado

Both Saliman and Joe Garcia, chancellor for the Colorado Community College System, says it’s important for staff to support the needs of today’s students.

“We are serving different students than we used to serve, and that’s good,” Garcia says. “The students who used to come to college were the ones who we felt had the family support, academic preparation, financial wherewithal to come to college. But we recognize now as a nation, that we need more people with a college education. Many of those people coming to us lack academic preparation, family or financial wherewithal. We have to now provide that, (and) that costs more.”

Supporting today’s students can include providing academic tutoring, assisting with the costs of housing and transportation, and making mental health resources available.

“Something that we are all hearing about a lot today and something that I’m sure is being dealt with in every state and in every college campus in the country is mental health,” Saliman says. “So that is a huge, huge issue for many of us, not just for the students but for the faculty and staff as well.”

Boosting Graduation Rates

Both leaders also highlighted the importance of getting students to complete their degree or credential programs.

“One of the things that that I think is really important for all of us is retention and graduation rates,” Saliman says. “Putting policies in place that incentivize and reward higher graduation rates relative to institutions, that is a positive thing.”

“Frankly, if we could help students graduate on time, it would save a lot of money,” Garcia says.

Savings aside, both leaders underscore the ongoing importance and value of a college degree.

“The data is clear: You are much more likely to be recession-proof, COVID-proof, and have more money to own a home and have your own kids go to college if you went to college,” Garcia says. “Let’s not discourage people from going. Let’s be focused on how we make it affordable and how we make sure the outcomes are good so they aren’t just going—they are graduating.”

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