The high cost of higher education: part 1 of 3 in a series

Recently, NPR’s Morning Edition featured a segment entitled “How the cost of college went from affordable to sky high.” For background, the story’s reporter turned to higher education scholar and author John Thelin. To continue the discussion, we asked Professor Thelin a few quick questions about higher education costs and how to deal with them.

Q: How do colleges determine the expected family contribution?

Thelin: College admissions and financial aid officers use the FAFSA as a base. What is crucial is for you as a student and applicant to report family circumstances that might make you eligible for more grant aid—for example, do you have brothers and sisters attending college? Any disabilities?

Q: How do public and private tuition increases compare?

Thelin: Public tuition increases at a higher percentage, but these increases probably are still lower in actual price than private tuition. But look beyond the most expensive colleges, whether public or private—many colleges are very reasonable in their price. If you are a resident of a state, your in-state tuition should be much lower than for an out-of-state student.

Q: Are there any colleges doing creative things to address growing tuition rates?

Thelin: Yes, indeed—some colleges are reducing or eliminating institutional loans while increasing grants. Find out if financial aid is merit based or need based, or both!

Q:  Are there public policy solutions you can suggest?

Thelin:  Yes, move away from loans toward grants. Or, perhaps, a compromise—have student loans forgiven if a college graduate works in a service profession in an under-served area.

As this brief Q & A suggests, while the expense of higher education is a daunting issue, people who work in the field are not only well aware of the problems surrounding the cost of college, they have concrete ideas about how we can address the issue—and they’re more than willing to keep searching for additional solutions. This discussion continues tomorrow with comments from Laura Perna, author of The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education, and on Monday with thoughts from John V. Lombardi, author of How Universities Work. Please join in.


John R. Thelin is University Research Professor and a member of the Educational Policy Studies Department at the University of Kentucky. His many books include: A History of American Higher Education, second editionGames Colleges Play: Scandal and Reform in Intercollegiate Athletics, and the forthcoming Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education, all published by Johns Hopkins.