The High Cost of Higher Education Explained in One Simple Graphic

A student rides a bicycle past the bell tower on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. Photographer: Daniel Acker
A student rides a bicycle past the bell tower on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. (Daniel Acker, Getty Images)

For years, politicians and pundits have held forth about the high cost of higher education. Whether the issue du jour is rising tuition prices, falling returns on our educational investment, or the ballooning student debt bubble, the message has generally been the same: College is only getting harder to afford, even as it becomes more necessary.

Recently, CourseSmart, an e-textbook provider, created an infographic that lays out in simple terms the details of the college tuition explosion -- and they're truly frightening. Over the last 30 years, tuition has increased 1,120 percent; by comparison, even the "skyrocketing" cost of health care only rose 600 percent, and housing costs have gone up a paltry 375 percent.

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Not surprisingly, college loan debt has grown explosively too, outstripping car loans and credit cards as the largest sources of personal debt. Given the much-trumpeted 2011 announcement that Americans owed more than $1 trillion in student loans, this shouldn't be all that surprising. Nor, for that matter, should it be shocking that almost one in five families is currently paying off student loans.

Yet, somehow, it is.

There are a lot of ideas being floated to get these problems under control: value report cards for universities; pay-it-forward tuition plans; a renewed focus on non-collegiate higher education. For now, however, tuitions continue to rise and students continue to take on back-breaking debt to cover the bills, as the graphic below explains.

High cost of higher eucation
High cost of higher eucation

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.