Postsecondary tuition has always been a hybrid of free-market principles. In the case of private institutions, prices are whatever the laws of supply and demand will bear, and for state-run universities and colleges, the belief that education needs to be kept affordable. In recent years, however, the rise in public tuition fees—in percentage terms—is matching, and often exceeding, those in the private sector.

That trend can be seen most starkly in the states with the top tuition increases. The three states with the biggest hikes in the past four years—Rhode Island, Vermont and Massachusetts—are all in the U.S. Northeast. This is where many of the country’s Ivy League institutions reside,  where one expects relatively expensive fees: amongst the eight Ivy League institutions, tuition hikes since 2001 have ranged from 66 percent to nearly 96 percent.

But tuition hikes are not restricted to the Ivy League. Take Rhode Island, for example. There, Ivy League school Brown University saw its average tuition rise from $26,568 to $48,272 between 2001 and 2015—a jump of almost 82 percent. At public Rhode Island College, the rise was almost 149 percent (from $2,860 to $7,118) over the same timeframe.

While the new U.S. administration has threatened to cut funding to postsecondary education in its 2018 budget, the recent congressional budget has protected most of that funding for the time being—even increasing it, in the case of the Pell Grant program for low-income college students.

Despite this reprieve from congress, colleges across America are having to find ways of dealing with rising tuition rates.

This interactive map shows the average tuition fees aggregated across each US state, and overall rise in fees from 2011–2015. Click here to view it in a new window.

All figures are for in-state, on-campus students and are sourced from the US Department of Education. In the case of 2015, figures are provisional.

Map credit: Quin Parker

Here is what the three states that account for the biggest share of postsecondary students—California, New York and Texas—are doing to address the challenge.

California

Postsecondary enrollment (Fall 2014): 2,696,415
Average fees: $14,280.30
Average yearly increase, 2011–15: $298.44

California instituted a five-year tuition freeze at its public universities in 2011, but that freeze is set to expire with the 2016–17 school year. Many worry that the freeze period will be followed by a sharp spike in fees, as has happened in the past. Indeed, despite this recent five-year freeze, both the University of California and California State University have doubled their average tuition and mandatory fees over the past decade. A sharp increase is expected with the 2017–18 school year.

In anticipation of the hike, some state legislators are looking at a more fundamental shift in how postsecondary education is funded. A bill introduced in the California State Legislature in March would impose a one percent tax on Californians with household incomes above $1 million, with money raised from the tax going into a financial aid fund. That money, combined with existing aid programs, would make tuition free for in-state students at the University of California, California State University and California community colleges.

New York

Postsecondary enrollment (Fall 2014): 1,299,055
Average fees: $17,447.56
Average yearly increase, 2011–15: $551.64

If California does make tuition at its postsecondary institutions free, it would follow in the footsteps of New York State, which in April passed legislation that provides free tuition for students in the state’s public colleges and universities.

The so-called “Excelsior” scholarship will be phased in over three years and applies to families making $100,000 a year or less. Students have to attend school full-time and plan to graduate in two or four years (depending on the program)—details which tend to favour middle-class students over low-income students (who often have to work during school, prolonging their stay). The new program does not cover living expenses, books and other fees.

The State University of New York (SUNY) estimates that one-fifth of its graduates (about 80,000 students) would qualify for the program. One of the program’s caveats, however: beneficiaries of the scholarship have to remain in the State of New York post-graduation for the same number of years that they received funding.

Texas

Postsecondary enrollment (Fall 2014): 1,555,462
Average fees: $10,985
Average yearly increase, 2011–15: $302.37

While California has tried tuition freezes and is exploring New York’s recent move to free tuition for state-run colleges and universities, the third-largest state for postsecondary education, Texas, is taking a typically conservative approach to the issue. In April, the Texas senate passed a bill that would institute a two-year freeze at public universities in the state, followed by a cap limiting tuition increases to no more than one percent over the rate of inflation; the bill makes sure that schools meet certain performance benchmarks before they’re allowed to raise rates again.  

Those efforts, however, are also being paired with deep funding cuts for public institutions—an estimated decrease of six to 10 percent for Texas’ colleges and universities. To compensate, the senate has approved the elimination of a requirement that universities set aside 15 percent of tuition for financial aid—which supporters of the bill argue will give schools more control over how they spend tuition money.

Postsecondary tuition fees in Texas have risen significantly since 2003, when the state deregulated rates—rising nearly 150 percent over the past 14 years.


Matt O'Grady

Matt O'Grady

Matt O’Grady is a freelance writer, editor and college instructor, based in Vancouver, Canada. A former Editor-in-Chief of BCBusiness magazine and British Columbia Bureau Chief for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, Matt has a particular interest in issues of government policy and education.