Published: 2/9/21

From 2009 to 2019, U.S. student loan debt increased 107%, from $772 billion to $1.6 trillion.  During the same period, the average amount individual students borrowed increased by 26%, from $24,000 to over $30,000.

One doesn’t have to look far for at least a partial explanation for this ballooning student loan debt. During the same timeframe, the average annual cost of attendance (COA) at U.S. colleges and universities rose 37%, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Based on this data, Intelligent.com analyzed the COA, including tuition, room and board, fees, and expenses, at 1,802 public, private non-profit, and private for-profit institutions. In total, 1,757 – 97% – saw an increase in the cost of attendance during the last decade. By comparison, the COA decreased or remained the same at only 45 institutions.

Besides contributing to the student loan debt crisis, skyrocketing college costs are being further scrutinized during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recession, as unemployed students and families weigh the value of college attendance, and schools face the cost of implementing changes to prevent the transmission of the virus.

Key Findings

  • Average annual cost of college in the U.S. increased by 36.9% in last decade
  • Hawaii saw the biggest increase in average annual COA, 55%, of all 50 states and the District of Columbia
  • Average annual COA increases ranged from .09% to 500%
  • 26% of universities in the U.S. cost $50,000 or more per year to attend

In biggest jump, cost of attendance at Hawaii’s universities increased by 55% during last decade

When analyzed on a state-by-state basis, the average annual COA at institutions in Hawaii increased the most between the 2009-10 and 2019-20 academic years.

Despite only having five institutions on our list, the average annual COA at Hawaii schools rose 55%, from $23,515 to $36,348. The biggest individual school increase was at Hawaii Pacific University, where the average annual COA went from $$28,664 in 2009 to $$49,640 in 2019, a 73% increase.

Meanwhile, the smallest increase in average annual COA was among schools in New Mexico, where the average annual COA rose to $23,692 from $18,776, which represents a not-insignificant 26% increase. The majority of New Mexico schools are public institutions, which tend to have lower costs of attendance, and overall saw lower increases in COA when compared to private institutions. New Mexico also had a school, St. John’s College, which decreased tuition by 1.5% between 2009 and 2019.

Throughout the last decade, schools in Washington, D.C. have had the highest average COA. During the 2009-10 academic year, the average annual COA at schools in the nation’s capital was $41,800. By the 2019-20 academic year, that number leaped to $58,442, a 40% increase.

Schools in Wyoming continue to have the lowest average annual COA, despite a 48% increase in average annual COA during the last decade. During the 2019-20 academic year, the average annual COA in the Equality State was $19,199, up from $12,937 in 2009.

5 out of 10 schools with the biggest cost of attendance increases located in the South

Although Hawaii topped the list for the state whose schools experienced the biggest COA increases, Southern states accounted for five of the top 10 states that saw the largest jumps in COA.

Louisiana was number two on the list, with the average annual COA at schools in the state increasing by 52%, from $22,045 to $33,457. Other Southern states that ranked in the top 10 include Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Overall, the cost of attending schools in the South region of the U.S. rose by 38% from 2009-2020, outpacing the national average.

The percentage increase in COA was slightly lower than the national average in the Midwest, where the annual average COA increased by 35%. The average annual COA of schools in Kansas increased by 40% in the last decade, landing the state at #10 on the list of top 10 states with the highest percentage increase in COA.

However, when looked at in dollar amounts, the cost of attendance at schools in the Northeast rose the most. On average, the cost of attending a school located in this region increased by $12,931 from 2009 to 2019. By comparison, the cost of attending a school in the South increased by $10,040; in the Midwest, the COA increased by $9,257, and in the West, the cost increased by $8,759.

At $81K per year, University of Chicago is the U.S.’s most expensive school

Out of the 1,802 schools we analyzed, 476, or 26%, cost $50,000 or more per year to attend. resulting in a total price tag of $200,000 or more for a four-year degree.

The schools that rank as the most expensive in the U.S. changed significantly in the last decade. As of the 2019-2020 academic year, the University of Chicago, a private, non-profit university, topped the list, with an annual price tag of $81,531. The research institution experienced a 50% increase since 2009, when the COA was $54,290. For the 2009-10 academic year, the University of Chicago was the eighth most expensive school in the nation.

Landmark College, a private non-profit college for students with learning disabilities in Vermont, went from #1 to #10, despite a 34% increase in COA, from $57,700 to $77,400.

For both the 2009-10 and 2019-20 academic years, the Northeast upheld its reputation as the stronghold of expensive, elite institutions, with schools in this region comprising half of the list of top 10 priciest colleges in the nation. In 2009, three Southern universities, and two Midwestern universities rounded out the top. No school in the West cracked the top 10; Stanford University in California was the most expensive school in this region, at #13.

However, by the 2019-20 academic year, the three schools in the South had dropped out of the top 10, and were replaced by three schools in the West, all located in California. Landmark College and Columbia University in New York were the only Northeastern schools that remained in the top 10 from 2009. A 152% COA increase rocketed the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to #4 in the top 10 list of most expensive schools in the U.S.

From a 500% increase to 45% decrease, change in cost of attendance at U.S. schools varies widely

When looked at on a school level, Webb Institute, a private engineering college located on Long Island in New York, had the biggest increase in cost of attendance over the last decade, going from $12,110 to $72,690, a 500% increase. The smallest increase was at Oklahoma’s Cameron University, a public institution that offers two- and four-year degrees, as well as graduate programs. The COA at this school increased by a modest .9%, from $20,852 to $20,872 per year.

During this timeframe, the COA decreased at 44 schools, with the most significant decrease happening at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in New York. The COA at this specialized school dropped to $5,050 from $9,213, a 45% decrease.

The COA at public universities increased at nearly the same rate as private schools during the last decade. reflecting funding cuts implemented after the Great Recession. The average annual COA at public universities increased by 35%, compared to 39% at private universities. Private for-profit institutions saw the lowest increase average annual COA, at 21%.

However, public universities still remain the most affordable option for students. During the 2019-20 academic year, the average annual COA at public universities was $27,184, compared to $37,530 at private, for-profit institutions, and $47,518 at private, non-profit institutions.

Among private, non-profit schools, religious-affiliated institutions, regardless of denomination, were the most likely to see significant COA increases between 2009 and 2019. Nine out of the 10 institutions that experienced the biggest increases in COA, ranging from from 103% to 497%, were religious-affiliated institutions.

Methodology

All data found in this report derives from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), specifically the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

In total, 1,802 higher education institutions in the United States were analyzed for this report. Schools ranged from public 4-year institutions to private, for-profit, less-than 2-year institutions. Schools were either public, private (for-profit), or private (non-profit).

Each school was analyzed according to its total price for in-state students living on campus in 2009-10, total price for out-of-state students living on campus in 2009-10, total price for in-state students living on campus in 2019-20, and total price for out-of-state students living on campus in 2019-20. If any school was missing data for any of those four columns, it was removed and not analyzed.

To find the average cost of attendance on a school level for 2009-10, the two total prices for that year (in-state & out-of-state) were averaged together. This was also done to find the average cost of attendance on a school level for 2019-20. Once each school had an average cost for each year, a percent increase equation was run to find the 10-year percent change in the cost of college for each school. Schools were then ranked from largest increase to smallest.

To find the data on a state-by-state basis, the four aforementioned costs for all schools in a specific state were averaged together separately so that each state had one average cost for each of the four columns. Then, the two 2009-10 columns and two 2019-20 columns were averaged together to find an average cost for the two years for each state. Then, the same percent increase equation was run and states were ranked from largest increase to smallest.

To find the national figures, the exact same process was conducted but on a national scale. For reference, “total cost” refers to in-state (or out-of-state) tuition and fees, books and supplies, on-campus room and board, and other on-campus expenses in a given year.