This chart shows how quickly college tuition has skyrocketed since 1980


Lamar Alexander


Sen. Lamar Alexander

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. - a former US secretary of education - has drawn derision for claiming in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that it's a "myth" that college is too expensive.


"Paying for college never is easy, but it's easier than most people think," writes Alexander, who currently chairs the Senate's education committee.

In his op-ed, Alexander neglects to address a major topic in college affordability discussions: ballooning tuition costs. College tuition has seen massive tuition increases in the past 30 years, growing disproportionately to other consumer goods.

The below chart using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the growth in the price of a college education compared to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all consumers.

CPI chart

Business Insider


The average annual increase in college tuition from 1980-2014 grew by nearly 260% compared to the nearly 120% increase in all consumer items.

In 1980, the average cost of tuition, room and board, and fees at a four-year post-secondary institution was $9,438, according to the Department of Education. That number has since climbed to $23,872.

One explanation for this trend is that students, rather than state governments, are absorbing more of the costs of college, according to the Washington Post. Colleges have also seen an enormous uptick in enrollment between 1980 and 2012.

The World Bank reports tertiary school enrollment as a percentage of the total population of students who graduated within the last five years.

In 1980, the US enrollment was 53% and in 2012 it was 94%. While the World Bank defines tertiary school broadly - and includes universities, colleges, technical training institutes, community colleges, nursing schools, and research laboratories - the increase is stark enough to acknowledge that the growth in college attendees likely contributes to growing college costs as well.

Growing college enrollment contributes to increased costs in two ways. It necessitates the hiring of more administrative staff, which can be costly. It also normally means that the expenditures, from state and federal government, per student is lower, again placing the burden of tuition and fees on students and families.