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Navigating the Price of Everything: Exploring the Impact of Education Inflation on Returning to School

student saving coins in jar

Higher education can be a valuable investment in your present and future, unlocking new career opportunities and increasing your earning potential. However, as with any investment, there’s an upfront cost involved. As tuition rates across the nation increase, prospective students are bound to worry whether a degree will fit into their budget. 

These are valid concerns, but there is good news: Even in the face of rising tuition costs, you can find a quality degree program at an affordable cost. Let’s explore the issue of education inflation further so you can better understand the cost of a college degree.

Understanding Education Inflation

As is seemingly the case with the price of everything, tuition rates and fees have risen significantly over the decades. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the average college tuition has increased by 747.8 percent since 1963! This increase is certainly concerning, but it merits some additional context. 

Sticker Price vs. Actual Cost

One thing to consider is that there’s often a significant difference between the sticker price of college and what students actually pay. Because many students qualify for financial aid, such as scholarships and grants, their final cost can be considerably lower than the advertised cost. In fact, when you look at the net cost students actually pay, that number has decreased in recent years.

Averages and Extremes

Another important consideration is that average tuition costs factor in the most illustrious universities, where tuition rates have risen to extremes. The high sticker price of these schools — paired with selective admissions processes — add to their prestige, but the cost can be prohibitive for most people looking to get a degree. 

Looking at an average isn’t a great way to determine whether you can afford college because the cost can look dramatically different depending on the type of school and factors such as whether you attend in-person or online and whether you live on campus. 

Skilled Labor Costs

Even among more reasonably priced colleges, you’ll see higher tuition rates today than in past decades. One reason for this, according to economist Catharine Hill, is that the cost of employing skilled professors and administrators has risen. Colleges must ensure their tuition rates support their staff’s salaries so students can learn from highly educated minds and experienced leaders in their fields.

Managing the Cost of Tuition

Despite rising tuition costs, there are plenty of opportunities to pursue a degree in a financially responsible way. 

Choose your institution wisely.

First, it’s wise to attend a school where you can get a high-quality education and an accredited degree without paying for prestige. You don’t need an Ivy League college listed on your resume for your degree to carry weight. Some colleges and universities are geared more towards recent graduates, while others are more accommodating to busy working adults and offer classes in the evenings or online. And while most institutions will accept some types of transfer credits, like SNU's prior learning credits, it's important to understand how credit is evaluated and transcripted before selecting a university as an adult student.

Take advantage of financial aid.

All prospective college students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In addition to scholarships and grants (which can come from the government, your college or private organizations and donors), you can also manage the cost of your degree through student loans, including Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans. Working professionals going back to school should also look into whether their employer offers a tuition assistance program.

Work with a college advisor to understand your costs.

With financial aid, tuition, fees, learning materials and more, understanding the cost of going back to school can feel complicated at times. Work with a financial aid advisor at the college you’re considering to ensure you explore your financial aid options and have an accurate estimate of total costs. 

Making the Most of Your Investment

Despite education inflation, there are many great reasons to return to school. From a purely financial standpoint, a degree is a smart investment that can deliver an impressive return in the form of better job security, more career opportunities and higher pay. 

Choose the right degree.

The right degree is ultimately one that’s the right fit for your interests and aptitudes, but it’s also smart to consider the financial opportunities that come with a degree. Whatever degree you choose, you’ll want to acquire versatile skills and knowledge that will allow you to adapt to a changing job market and future-proof your career.

Build your professional network.

Going back to school can offer more than just a degree — it can also provide valuable connections. You’ll get to know professors and peers who enrich your career journey. You may even be able to seek out a mentor to provide guidance and help open doors to internships and job opportunities. A program designed around a cohort model can be especially helpful in building your professional network from day one.

The Value of Going Back to School

Although the rising cost of higher education may appear daunting, there are ways to navigate these challenges and secure a valuable degree without breaking the bank. If you’re considering attending college for the first time or going back to school, remember that a degree is an investment in your future, offering not only improved job prospects and earning potential, but also personal growth and valuable connections.

At Southern Nazarene University (SNU), you’ll find affordable degree programs that can help you accomplish your personal and professional goals. Want to learn more about the enriching learning experiences available at SNU? Check out our guide, What to Expect as an SNU Professional and Graduate Studies Student!

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