How is the pandemic affecting current college tuition prices?

University of Wyoming Entrance Sign.

Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart

University of Wyoming Entrance Sign.

It’s no secret that college tuition is a beast, but will Covid-19 tame it?

The Hathaway Scholarship’ is, to most Wyoming students, a familiar combination of words, one they’ve been hearing since middle school, if not before. It’s a Wyoming-specific scholarship that rewards academic success. To many, it’s their only hope of paying for a college education, and it’s not uncommon to hear a graduating senior say they’d love to go out of state, but can’t for financial reasons.

But when one stops to think about it, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept that such a specific scholarship program is necessary for students to afford college tuition, especially when it limits their choices so much. One can’t help but wonder why college is so expensive.

Many would, and have, explained away the issue with a single word: inflation. As the value of the dollar decreases, the amount of money required to pay for goods and services increases. 

A quick glance at inflation rates for anything else compared to tuition, though, proves otherwise. 

“Tuition inflation has risen at a faster rate than the cost of medical services, child care, and housing,” said Preston Cooper, a reporter for Forbes. “While generous financial aid means that students usually pay far less than the ‘sticker price’ of tuition, the net price of public four-year colleges has still more than doubled since the turn of the century.” 

A large contributing factor to this steep rise in price is the steep rise in demand. 

“Many students treat a college degree as a ‘golden ticket’ to the middle class,” Cooper said, and as students see the prices of housing, healthcare, and other trappings of the American Dream skyrocketing before their eyes, that golden ticket is something they’d likely do anything to get. 

As more students pour into college campuses, more professors need to be hired, and the existing professors need to be compensated for their ballooning workloads; that’s where the bulk of the cost comes from. 

“Labor costs at the educational institutions are their main expense,” PHS Business and Finance teacher Mr. Mike Heny said, “so as salaries for professors and everything went up, obviously that just gets passed along to students.”

So college tuition is expensive due primarily to how in-demand it is. But, like everything else these days, one question needs to be applied: how will Covid-19 affect it? 

Two main hypotheses are currently being tossed around. The first is that students will be hesitant to attend universities due to the virus, and this sudden lack of demand will force colleges to drop prices. The second, favored by Mr. Heny, is much gloomier 

“. . . Colleges, as they get declines in enrollment, or endowments and contributions fall because people can’t afford to donate as much . . . are going to have to pass those along to students,” Mr. Heny said. 

So far, he seems to be right, as tuition prices continue to climb unencumbered, and their curriculum shifts primarily to online learning.