College is more expensive than it's ever been for 5 reasons, and there are no solutions in sight

  • College tuition and student-loan debt are higher than ever.
  • College is expensive for many reasons, including a surge in demand, an increase in financial aid, a lack of state funding, a need for more faculty members and money to pay them, and ballooning student services.
  • The cost of college has made a degree less advantageous than it was 10 years ago, one expert said. 

Josh Kirdy knows how to hustle.

When he's not working full time as an assistant store manager at Universal Orlando, the 26-year-old is on the prowl for side work, landing stints walking dogs and putting in part-time hours at a local mall retailer.

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Salary needed to afford college in every US state
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Salary needed to afford college in every US state

Alabama

  • Income for in-state tuition: $71,912.73
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $87,142.73

Alabama falls within the bottom half of states for income needed to pay for college due to a lower cost of living than most states. It’s also on the cheaper side for college tuition, with in-state tuition and fees for 2017-18 averaging out to just over $10,000.

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Alaska

  • Income for in-state tuition: $85,644.81
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $101,044.81

The average college tuition and fees of just $7,440 for in-state students is among the 10 lowest in the country. However, because the cost of living is high, Alaska residents need to earn more than most. Fortunately, the average household income is also high — $92,191 — so a typical family should be able to afford to send their kid to an in-state college.

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Arizona

  • Income for in-state tuition: $83,303.54
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $101,833.54

Arizona residents will likely have to borrow money to send their kids to a state university if they’re not ready for this high cost. With average in-state tuition and fees of $11,220, Arizona families need more than $80,000 in annual income to cover college costs in addition to everything else.

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Arkansas

  • Income for in-state tuition: $65,349.53
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $77.799.53

Thanks to a low cost of living and relatively low tuition and fees for state schools, the annual income needed for Arkansas residents to send their kids to an in-state college is the fourth-lowest on the list and the lowest for out-of-state tuition. The state also has the fourth-lowest median home price in the country at just $121,000.

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California

  • Income for in-state tuition: $108,501.81
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $131,411.81

The income necessary to send someone to college in California is the second highest in the entire nation for both in and out of the state. But this has more to do with the high cost of living. Golden State residents will pay under $10,000 a year in tuition and fees, putting them right in the middle of the pack.

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Colorado

  • Income for in-state tuition: $95,896.97
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $115,696.97

Colorado residents need a higher annual income to pay for college and live comfortably than residents in all but three states. Much of that can be attributed to the high cost of buying a home — the median home price is over $362,600, according to Zillow.

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Connecticut

  • Income for in-state tuition: $90,425.94
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $107,055.94

Connecticut is an expensive place to live, and both the in-state tuition and the income necessary to afford it are among the 10 highest in this study. Of course, there are plenty of people who can afford it: Three of the richest zip codes in the country are in the state.

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Delaware

  • Income for in-state tuition: $86,696.20
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $105,396.20

Delaware makes it out of the worst 10 states for the salary you need to send a kid to college there, but not by much. And out-of-state tuition is actually the seventh highest in the country.

If you’re planning on sending a kid to college in Delaware, consider moving to Wilmington: It’s the Delaware city where your paycheck stretches the furthest.

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Florida

  • Income for in-state tuition: $83,754.63
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $99,274.63

Florida might be one of the best states to retire rich in, but there might also be reasons to move there prior to your golden years. At just $6,360 a year, the average in-state tuition in Florida is the second lowest in the country.

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Georgia

  • Income for in-state tuition: $77,361.32
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $95,551.32

Thanks to a low cost of living and relatively low in-state tuition and fees, Georgia families don’t need as high of an annual income for college costs.

Also See: The Average Student Loan Debt in Every State

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Hawaii

  • Income for in-state tuition: $131,206.47
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $151,636.47

Hawaii requires the highest annual income to pay for in-state college costs and live comfortably in the country. That’s primarily due to the highest home prices and costs for basic necessities in the U.S., but the tuition costs are also above average.

However, when you live on an island paradise, you should probably expect to make some compromises.

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Idaho

  • Income for in-state tuition: $76,747.11
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $92,077.11

The average in-state tuition and fees of $7,250 for Idaho public institutions is the sixth lowest in the U.S. That does make it somewhat odd that Idaho lands in the middle of the pack for what it costs to live comfortably while paying for college. However, its overall ranking is in line with its average cost of necessities.

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Illinois

  • Income for in-state tuition: $76,965.48
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $86,825.48

At $13,620, Illinois has the fifth-highest average for in-state college costs. The Land of Lincoln isn’t cutting any slack to its residents, though, when you consider that the out-of-state tuition is actually lower than more than half of the other states.

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Indiana

  • Income for in-state tuition: $65,473.37
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $85,283.37

The annual income needed in Indiana to pay for college and live comfortably is the sixth lowest overall. Although in-state tuition is actually a little higher than most, Indiana has the second-lowest cost for basic necessities in the nation, helping to make affording tuition significantly easier.

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Iowa

  • Income for in-state tuition: $64,932.92
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $82,212.92

Iowa is the nation’s winner when it comes to having the lowest income necessary to afford in-state tuition without breaking the bank. Although it’s actually among the 20 most expensive states in terms of the average tuition and fees for in-state students, it has the fourth-lowest cost of necessities, the sixth-lowest average mortgage payment and the eighth-lowest median list price for homes. This is all part of why Iowa is the best state for the middle class.

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Kansas

  • Income for in-state tuition: $65,430.61
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $80,110.61

Kansans have the third-lowest average mortgage payment and the fifth-lowest cost of necessities, helping the state climb into the top five of states where the lowest income is needed to pay for college and still live comfortably.

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Kentucky

  • Income for in-state tuition: $68,880.86
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $82,290.86

Kentucky finishes in the top 10 for needing less to get by while sending a kid to college — both for out-of-state and in-state tuition. The average tuition costs aren’t especially low, but the cost of living and owning a home in Kentucky are both low.

Likewise, the overall cost of education — from elementary school through college — is also low. Kentucky is among the 10 cheapest in terms of the cost of private schooling.

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Louisiana

  • Income for in-state tuition: $75,468
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $89,448.71

The income needed to comfortably pay college tuition in Louisiana is lower than most, but that’s likely a much higher burden for some than it is for others: The state has the second-highest level of income inequality in the country.

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Maine

  • Income for in-state tuition: $73,965.93
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $91,005.93

Maine residents need less to pay for college and live comfortably than residents in more than half of the states thanks to a relatively low average in-state tuition of $9,970. Plus, the average cost of necessities here is lower than in over 30 other states. Yet, there’s still a $23,000-plus gap between the income needed to pay for college and the state’s median household income of $50,826.

If You’ve Got Money to Spend: The Most Expensive Colleges in Every State

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Maryland

  • Income for in-state tuition: $87,132.49
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $99,612.49

Maryland might require more money than most to get by while sending a kid to college, but the state’s residents are much more likely to be able to afford it: The required $87,000 a year is actually about $13,000 under the state’s average household income. And, Maryland has the most millionaires per capita of any state in the country.

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Massachusetts

  • Income for in-state tuition: $100,801.39
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $117,291.39

Massachusetts requires the third-highest annual income to pay for college and live comfortably, which is in line with the state’s third-highest cost of basic necessities and third-highest average monthly mortgage bill. Plus, the high cost of living here makes Massachusetts one of the states where residents are most likely to live paycheck to paycheck.

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Michigan

  • Income for in-state tuition: $69,057.77
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $92,967.77

Michigan has an interesting combination of factors, with the cost of buying a home and paying for necessities among the lowest in the country. But, it has the sixth-highest in-state tuition costs and the second-highest out-of-state tuition costs.

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Minnesota

  • Income for in-state tuition: $81,923
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $91,513

The Land of 10,000 Lakes sure appears to be trying to show a little “Minnesota Nice” for those hailing from outside the state. Although in-state tuition and fees are the 13th highest in the country, its out-of-state costs are the ninth lowest.

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Mississippi

  • Income for in-state tuition: $68,064.50
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $79,134.50

The income necessary to pay tuition bills in addition to all your other bills is the seventh lowest for in-state tuition in Mississippi and the fourth lowest for out-of-state tuition. It also has the third-lowest tuition rates for out-of-staters at just over $19,000 a year.

Don’t Want to Pay? The Best Career Advice From Bill Gates and These Billionaire College Dropouts

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Missouri

  • Income for in-state tuition: $69,468.85
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $81,778.85

Missouri is one of just 12 states where the income needed to pay for tuition without compromising on the rest of your bills is under $70,000. One thing helping make that possible is the chance to get cheaper homes, with a median list price that’s the fifth-lowest in the country.

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Montana

  • Income for in-state tuition: $82,665.86
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $98,975.86

Despite the fourth-lowest in-state tuition and fees of $6,910, Montana ranks among the top half of states for income needed to pay for college and live comfortably. This need for a higher income is because residents need more to cover necessities, splurges and savings.

One area they aren’t spending more? Taxes. Montanans pay the lowest effective tax rate in America.

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Nebraska

  • Income for in-state tuition: $70,089.64
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $82,129.64

Nebraska’s in-state tuition and fees are relatively low at $8,270 a year. But its out-of-state tuition is impressively low — the seventh-lowest in the country at just over $20,000 a year.

If you’re looking to splurge, though, consider Creighton University, the most expensive college in the state. Tuition will cost you over $37,000 annually.

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Nevada

  • Income for in-state tuition: $82,218.55
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $96,458.55

Nevada’s average in-state tuition and fees of $7,270 are lower than public college costs in all but six states. However, the annual cost of necessities, splurges and savings run higher than most states. As a result, the income required to live comfortably and send a kid to college is higher than the majority of states.

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New Hampshire

  • Income for in-state tuition: $89,996.04
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $102,356.04

New Hampshire ranks among the top 10 states for the annual income needed to pay for college and live comfortably. The cost of living is relatively high, but the big reason residents need a higher income to send their kids to school is because of the highest in-state tuition and fees — $16,070.

If you’re looking for a relative bargain in New Hampshire, consider the University of New Hampshire, the state’s top college with tuition costs under $20,000.

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New Jersey

  • Income for in-state tuition: $88,690.06
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $101,420.06

New Jersey also falls among the top 10 states for annual income needed to send a child to college and live comfortably — ninth highest to be specific. However, that might actually not be so bad when you consider that it has the fourth-highest average tuition for in-state students in the country.

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New Mexico

  • Income for in-state tuition: $70,385.90
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $83,525.90

New Mexico’s tuition rates are low — fifth lowest for in-state students and sixth lowest for out-of-state students — which helps make up for a cost of necessities that’s higher than the majority of states.

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New York

  • Income for in-state tuition: $92,323.34
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $103,883.34

New York has the fifth-highest income necessary to afford in-state tuition and still live comfortably. But that’s not because of the tuition cost, which is the 11th lowest for in-state and fifth lowest for out-of-state. No, it’s the hefty cost of necessities — the fifth highest in America.

Know More: The 5 Things We Should Have Learned in School — But Didn’t

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North Carolina

  • Income for in-state tuition: $74,722.51
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $91,862.51

North Carolina’s university system is pretty friendly to its fellow Tarheels. The state has the eighth-lowest average in-state tuition and fees, but an out-of-state tuition that’s higher than about half the country.

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North Dakota

  • Income for in-state tuition: $74,579.97
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $85,799.97

North Dakota’s average in-state tuition and fees of $8,200 are relatively low, and its out-of-state rates are the fourth lowest. So it’s the cost of necessities, splurges and savings that push up the income needed to live comfortably and pay for college in this state.

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Ohio

  • Income for in-state tuition: $65,064.61
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $79,554.61

The annual income needed to pay for college in Ohio and live comfortably is lower than in all but two states. It’s also one of just five states where the income required to live comfortably while sending a child to college out of state is under $80,000 a year. Why? Well, having the lowest cost for necessities and the second-lowest average mortgage payment has to help.

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Oklahoma

  • Income for in-state tuition: $69,013.89
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $83,073.89

The cost of living in Oklahoma is relatively low, as is in-state tuition. In fact, Oklahomans will have more to spend on everything else given that they spend the least on groceries, on average, in the entire country.

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Oregon

  • Income for in-state tuition: $91,701.63
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $111,641.63

Oregon is one of the states where you need to earn the most to afford college, necessitating the sixth-highest income for in-state tuition and fifth highest for out-of-state. Meanwhile, the average mortgage payment and cost of necessities are both the sixth highest in the country.

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Pennsylvania

  • Income for in-state tuition: $77,542.10
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $90,062.10

Although the cost of necessities and other expenses are relatively low in Pennsylvania, residents have to pay the third-highest in-state tuition and fees, pushing the necessary income to pay for college much higher than the state’s cost of living would seem to indicate.

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Rhode Island

  • Income for in-state tuition: $88,097.91
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $104,777.91

Rhode Island’s relatively high in-state tuition of $12,230 combined with high expenses means residents need to earn more than residents in most states to have enough to put a kid through college and live comfortably — the income required for both in- and out-of-state tuition is the 11th highest in the country.

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South Carolina

  • Income for in-state tuition: $80,875.14
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $99,615.14

South Carolina residents have high tuition costs, with in-state students paying one of the 10 highest rates in the country. It’s worse if you’re out-of-state — that rate is the fifth highest of all the states.

Take Advantage: 9 Creative Ways to Pay for College

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South Dakota

  • Income for in-state tuition: $75,058.11
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $79,088.11

South Dakota is plenty inviting to prospective students from outside its borders — it has the lowest out-of-state tuition in the country and the income required for out-of-staters is the third lowest.

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Tennessee

  • Income for in-state tuition: $73,493.73
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $90,343.73

It takes less income to pay for college in Tennessee and live comfortably than in most states because the cost of living is relatively low.

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Texas

  • Income for in-state tuition: $79,356.90
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $95,726.90

The income necessary to send a kid to college and still live comfortably in Texas is right in the middle in relation to the other 50 states. But residents of the Lone Star State might have other issues with their finances: The state has the third-highest level of debt per capita in the country.

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Utah

  • Income for in-state tuition: $82,220
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $96,160

Utah’s average in-state tuition of $6,790 is the third lowest in the nation. However, the income needed to pay for college and live comfortably is higher than more than half of the states because the cost of a mortgage is much higher — the eighth highest in the country.

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Vermont

  • Income for in-state tuition: $85,785.25
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $108,735.25

At $16,040, Vermont has the second-highest in-state tuition and fees, after neighboring New Hampshire. As a result, Vermont ranks among the top 15 states for income needed to pay for college and live comfortably.

If you’re a Green Mountain State resident looking for a cheaper option, you could consider community college. There are plenty of examples of incredibly successful people who went the same route.

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Virginia

  • Income for in-state tuition: $86,233.40
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $106,683.40

Virginia ranks 16th highest for income needed to pay for college and live comfortably. This ranking is because in-state tuition is the seventh highest in the country. Out-of-staters have it worse, though, as they’re paying the third-highest rate to attend college in Virginia.

Once You’re in College: 10 Best Student Savings Accounts

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Washington

  • Income for in-state tuition: $90,519.51
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $110,339.51

Washington ranks seventh highest for income needed to send a kid to college and live comfortably. The average in-state tuition and fees of $9,480 aren’t high, but the cost of living is — the cost for basic necessities is the seventh highest in the country as well.

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West Virginia

  • Income for in-state tuition: $65,010.99
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $78,670.99

West Virginia residents need to earn less to pay for college — the income required is the second smallest in America. That’s because the in-state tuition is low, and the cost of living is even lower. West Virginia has the cheapest homes, lowest mortgage payments and the seventh-lowest cost of necessities.

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Wisconsin

  • Income for in-state tuition: $68,887.17
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $82,857.17

Wisconsin falls in the top 10 for states where sending a kid to college in-state is most affordable. The relatively low tuition bill helps, but it’s the cost of living that really makes the difference — the cost of necessities there is the ninth lowest in the country.

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Wyoming

  • Income for in-state tuition: $73,871.43
  • Income for out-of-state tuition: $85,481.43

At $5,220, Wyoming has the lowest average in-state tuition and fees of any state. However, it doesn’t rank at the very bottom of states for the income needed to pay for college and live comfortably due to median costs for mortgage and necessities and the 11th-highest cost for groceries.

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Ideal Salary Needed to Afford College in Your State -- Without Loans

The results of the study confirm that college tuition is unaffordable for many Americans across the country. With the cost of attending college being higher than it’s ever been, every state in this study requires more than the national median household income to pay for in-state tuition.

Click to read more about budgeting tips for college students.

Cameron Huddleston contributed to the reporting for this article.

More on education: 

Methodology: GOBankingRates surveyed monthly living expenses in all 50 states. The cost-of-living comparison included the following factors: (1) median mortgage costs by assuming a 20 percent down payment, 30-year fixed loan, the current Zillow interest rate for every state and multiplying that by 12 (1 year), sourced from Zillow’s home price index and determined using Zillow’s Mortgage Calculator; (2) annual groceries costs, taking the Grocery Cost of Living Index and multiplying by $10,139, which is the low-cost monthly grocery cost for family of four with children ages 6-8 and 9-11, sourced from Missouri Economic Research and Information Center’s cost of living index; (3) annual electricity bill, sourced from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2016 average monthly bill data for every state; (4) annual vehicle ownership and usage costs, sourced from GOBankingRates’ Most and Least Expensive States to Own a Car study; and (5) annual healthcare costs, sourced from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2016 data on the average family premium per enrolled employee for employer-based health insurance. Median income amounts are according to the Census Bureau’s “Median Household Income by State: 1984-2015.”  College tuition and fee costs at in-state public four-year institutions for 2017-2018 are sourced from the College Board.

Monthly costs were totaled and multiplied by 12 to get the annual dollar cost of necessities in each state. This dollar amount for necessities was then doubled to find the actual annual income needed to live comfortably in the city, assuming a person is following the 50/30/20 budgeting guideline, which requires an income double the cost of necessities. The amount of money specified for savings is equal to 20 percent of the total income needed, and the amount specified for discretionary spending is equal to 30 percent of the total income needed.

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He developed this juggling act to put extra payments toward his $37,000 student-loan debt.

"I'm happy with my life today and with the education I received, but it's unfortunate that I'll be paying for it for another seven years at least," Kirdy, who attended a four-year public university, told Business Insider. He's set to pay roughly $300 a month in student-loan repayments until he's 35.

"There are many factors behind the cost of college, and some people have stressed one or another," Richard Vedder, an author and distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University, told Business Insider.

But the ultimate driver of cost, Vedder said, is the sheer number of people vying for a college education. Higher enrollment has brought an expansion of financial-aid programs, a need to increase budgets for faculty pay and on-campus student services, and a decline in financial support from state governments.

College tuition has more than doubled since the 1980s

Kirdy is just one of the more than 44 million Americans with student-loan debt and contributing to a whopping national total of $1.5 trillion, according to Student Loan Hero. The average student debt per graduate who took out loans is higher than ever, at $17,126, Business Insider reported in November.

These stats are especially troubling considering their effects on people's long-term goals. Millennials are facing unique financial struggles previous generations weren't, like having to save longer for increased housing costs, something that hasn't been helped by the burden of student-loan debt.

"I feel like buying a house is a total pipe dream at this point in my life, but I'm tightening my belt as much as possible to save for a down payment right now," a water-resources engineer who graduated from a public university with roughly $25,000 in debt told Business Insider.

Four years later, she owes just under $19,000. Her $300 payments are set on autopay, which reduces her interest by 2.5% a month. It's more than her $260 income-driven payment plan requires, but she'll pay it down quicker this way.

"Thankfully, I have USAA, who has a great first-time-homebuyer program, so I only need a 3% down payment to get started," she said. "But without that, I would be trapped in a rent cycle until a second income magically appears in my life."

Boone Porcher, who owes $32,645 after five years at a public university, started paying double his minimum payment two years after graduating so he could pay off his debt in five years.

"I started to think more about their impact when evaluating my long-term planning, and I made the decision that I wanted the debt gone entirely ASAP," Porcher, a 26-year-old supply-chain consultant, told Business Insider. "Personally, I don't feel comfortable taking a loan on a house while having student loans."

A recent Student Loan Hero report found that while wages have increased by 67% since 1970, college tuition has increased at a faster rate, continuing to deliver a fair amount of sticker shock.

Roxy Novo told Business Insider her $60,000 student-loan debt from attending a private college had slowed down her life plans. The 22-year-old commutes two hours every day from New Jersey to her job as a studio artist fellow in New York City because her $500 monthly loan payment is equivalent to a portion of what it would cost to rent an apartment in the city, she said.

"I definitely cannot consider moving closer until I get a higher-paying job and get a good chunk of my debt paid," Novo said. "I'm trying to do the responsible thing and eliminate loans before considering any expensive, fun things, but it can be really hard when your friends are out traveling the world and moving to the city and you're swimming in debt."

College tuition was more affordable for older generations, Student Loan Hero reported, citing figures from the College Board: From the late 1980s to now, the cost of an undergraduate degree has risen by 213% at public schools and 129% at private schools, adjusting for inflation.

average college tuition 1987 2018 chartShayanne Gal/Business Insider

From the 2016-17 to the 2017-18 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees increased by more than 3% at private and public colleges, according to the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing 2017" report. At a four-year nonprofit private institution, tuition and room and board is $46,950, on average. Four-year public colleges charge an average of $20,770 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board. For out-of-state students, the total goes up to $36,420.

And then there are costs beyond tuition, like living expenses.

"One of the main reasons why I accrued so much debt was because my parents didn't save any money for me to go to college and they couldn't afford to contribute to the cause, so I used student loans not only to pay tuition but also to cover living expenses that my part-time job, which paid $8 per hour, couldn't cover," Kirdy said.

Everyone wants to go to college

"The demand for higher education has risen dramatically since 1985," Vedder said. "Once demand goes up and nothing else happens, that will raise prices."

According to the Department of Education, US colleges expected a total of 20.4 million students in fall 2017, about 5.1 million more than in fall 2000.

"The rewards for college have expanded and grown from 1985 to a little after 2000 and sort of leveled off in the past decade," Vedder said.

The increase in the student population indicates that the advantages college offers outweigh its overwhelming costs.

"There's a fear of failure if you didn't have a postsecondary education," Vedder said.

And yet, he said, the "advantage of a degree today is less than it was 10 years ago, because of the rising cost."

"The return on investment has fallen," he added, "and 40% of kids don't graduate within six years."

Still, it's a vicious cycle of supply and demand. The more students who want to attend college, the more the cost of college increases, and the more students borrow money.

From 2000 to 2012, the percentage of students who took out student loans jumped to 60% from about 50%, according to a report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The report also found that they began borrowing more money too — the median cumulative loan amount rose to $20,400 from $16,500 in that time.

Theories suggest financial aid causes tuition increases

More student borrowers might partly explain why government financial-aid programs have grown enormously — but that's also causing tuition increases, according to Vedder.

In 1970, financial-aid programs "were almost nonexistent," he said. "Generally, middle-income people didn't get money from the federal government; the large majority of students did not."

In 1978, Congress passed a bill known as the Middle Income Student Assistance Act. This made all undergraduates regardless of income class eligible for subsidized loans and middle-income students eligible for Pell Grants, according to NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. More and more students started applying for financial aid, Vedder said.

"Knowing that students will get this financial-aid money, the university raises fees and takes advantage to capture that themselves," Vedder explained, referring to an idea known as the Bennett hypothesis.

Named for a former education secretary who believed that more government aid for students led directly to college cost increases, the hypothesis is an ongoing topic of political debate. But it has some vertical support in Vedder's eyes. Citing a statistic from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Vedder said that for every new dollar of federal student aid, tuition is raised by 65 cents.

Though tuition rose in 1978, so did people's incomes, making the burden of college less than it was in the 1940s, Vedder explained. But between 1978 and 2015, the burden of college began to rise again as tuition fees doubled and economic growth slowed.

State funding can't keep up with enrollment

Terry Hartle, a senior vice president of the American Council on Education, boils down the increasing cost of college to this: Many state governments have cut operating support for higher education, for at least a generation, and let colleges replace the lost revenue with tuition hikes.

"States provide less, and students and parents pay more," Hartle told Business Insider. "Studies have shown that when state support is level or increasing, tuition is flat. But when state support declines, tuition goes up. Roughly 80% of America's students attend public colleges, so it's not an exaggeration to say that the biggest determinate of the price they will pay for their education is the budgetary decisions made by state governments."

The College Board's report underscores Hartle's theory. It found that prices at public colleges and universities rise faster when government funding per student sees little growth or is slowing down. In the 2015-16 school year, appropriations — money given to a school by the government — per full-time enrolled student were 11% lower than 10 years before, when adjusted for inflation.

"For public institutions, state appropriations make up a significant portion of the college's revenue, and in recent years, the state appropriations have not been able to keep pace with enrollment," Jennifer Ma, a senior policy research scientist at the College Board, told Business Insider.

Vedder, however, doesn't think state funding cuts are the main culprit, at least at private schools.

"The total number of state dollars has gone up a little, but enrollments have risen dramatically, so on a per-student basis they're getting less money," he said. "It's a factor but not dominant, because private schools don't get money from the state."

Colleges need to pay more professors

Just as it costs money to learn, it costs money to pay teachers. Higher education is a labor-intensive industry, and productivity gains come slowly, Hartle said.

"The primary mechanism for delivering higher education at most institutions are highly educated people," he said. "Acquiring and recruiting highly educated faculty and staff costs money, especially in jobs with significant demand outside academia."

Hartle said the sorts of things that could lower these costs — such as larger classes, more adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors, shorter hours, and fewer books in the library — were immensely unpopular with students, parents, and the public.

"Colleges spend much of their money on staff and compensation, so they have been experiencing an increasing cost of health insurance and other benefits," Ma said, adding that while university tuition allocations vary by institution, most use a large percentage of tuition to pay professors' salaries.

Vedder believes the percentage of university budgets used for instruction has fallen over the past 50 years.

"A typical university around 1970 would have allocated 40% directly for instruction, mostly professor salaries," he said. "Nowadays, it's more like 30%."

This decline in money for teachers and classes, in addition to state funding cuts, may help explain why the number of part-time faculty members has increased over time, to about 51% of total faculty in 2011 from 30% in 1975, according to research compiled by the American Association of University Professors.

With more part-time faculty members, universities can dole out lower wages and benefits, saving money for noninstructional full-time roles and a smaller group of tenured faculty, whom they can try to attract with higher salaries.

Student services, like counseling and healthcare, are growing

Many of these noninstructional roles are for student services, another increasing cost in campus budgets. Services such as academic support, personal counseling, and healthcare have been on the rise, Hartle said.

"These services are always added because of student needs, and most schools, once they begin to offer them, are very reluctant to take them away," he said, adding that there's also been a reallocation from instruction to administration expenses — known as institutional support — and research.

Vedder says there has been an explosion in the number of non-teaching personnel on campus, with several administrators at top universities making six-figure salaries with fringe benefits and secretarial support. He said about two-thirds of university budgets had nothing to do with teaching but instead go toward things like advocates, dormitories, and facilities.

Is the cost of college worth it?

The irony in the demand for a degree is palpable — by contributing to an increase in tuition, it has perhaps also made the college degree less advantageous over time.

To illustrate the diminishing value of a college degree, Vedder cited figures from the New York Fed, saying that one-third of college graduates are underemployed and 13% are in a low-paying job.

So is the cost of college worth it? It depends who you ask and how you measure the value of a degree.

"Honestly, I don't have a lot of job satisfaction, and I don't plan on being an engineer for the rest of my life," the water-resources engineer said. "In terms of getting me a job that pays well, maybe ... In terms of overall happiness, probably not."

Novo said loans were her only option for her first-choice school. A few schools offered scholarship money, but she said she felt they wouldn't help her reach her goals.

"The debt is definitely worth it," she said. "I picked my college with the hope that it would get me my first job and that it would be in my field and in NYC. I happily have a job with all those requests."

For Porcher, the regret isn't obtaining a college degree, but the lack of planning that put him over $32,000 in debt.

"Looking back, I wish I had worked for a year or two and saved up, or did half college, half work," he said. "But my job now wouldn't be possible without my degree. I'm actually the highest-ranking person without a master's or Ph.D. If I didn't have a good job, this would be an enormous burden."

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