A Timeline of College Tuition Costs - Best Value Schools

A Timeline of College Tuition Costs

Each year since 2009, over 20 million students enrol at American colleges and universities. Just as the demand for a college education has risen, so has the associated costs.

As the inflation of college tuition has reached new heights, most millennial students are finding it difficult to finish a degree without going into debt. Even after tuition is paid, factoring in the cost of textbooks, monthly rent, and other basic needs (groceries, etc.) cause expenses to add up faster than a freshman can say “graduation!”

Although financial aid is widely available today in the form of grants and scholarships, these tools only make a dent in the total cost. Payments are taking their toll on college students, and most are choosing to delay marriage and family life to avoid falling further into debt. In many cases, this delay lasts years after graduation, even creeping into their 30’s and 40’s.

So where did this costly trend begin? Though only a part of the explanation, an overall high cost of education is likely be attributed to 1) economics and 2) the American Dream. Because Americans value progress, innovation, and learning, there is a large demand for higher education. Of course, as demand increases, so does the price. As technology has spurred global competition and communication – especially since the year 2000 – the constant increase in college tuition can be attributed to these values.

To help better understand the reasoning behind these enormous costs, a timeline has been prepared to highlight key moments in education and college tuition history.


college tuition costs


1100-1300 AD: First modern universities are established in Medieval Europe

  • During this time period, most post-secondary institutions were founded upon religious or governmental motives; consequently, they carried substantial weight in their respective societies. Although these original universities rarely charged any tuition, opportunity was limited in regards to areas of study (medicine, law, theology, and art).
  • Classes started at 5am, and it typically took at least six years to earn a bachelor’s degree. Because Europe was just a couple hundred years removed from the Dark Ages, there was a strong cultural focus on higher thinking.
  • All in all, 23 universities were founded before the year 1300, with Oxford and Cambridge University among the most notable.


1781: Thomas Jefferson proposes the idea of a publicly-funded college education

  • Working as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Jefferson prepared a bill suggesting that Virginians should send students to college using tax money (or, “public expense,” as he eloquently stated it). Needless to say, the bill was never passed.  
  • Despite this rejection, Jefferson played an instrumental role in the integration of public education into American society during the early years of the United States, and later founded the University of Virginia in 1819.


Early 1800’s:

  • Though some universities had begun charging tuition by the 1800’s, costs were still very low.  The living expenses, however, were another story. Most universities required students to acquire full-time boarding at the institution, which meant that typically only the wealthy could afford to send their children off to college.


1862: The Morrill Act is passed, which expands higher education to millions of Americans

  • Signed by Abraham Lincoln, this bill opened doors to thousands of Americans by making a college education a real possibility. In an effort to expand growth and trade opportunity on a national scale, the federal government granted public lands to each state. These lands were sold with the incentive that, if sold for the purpose of establishing programs in the realms of relevant fields of trade such as agriculture and the arts, much of the profits made on the land were then used to either enhance prestigious colleges or build new “state” colleges.


1900: Association of American Universities is established, tuition costs begin to rise

  • Prior to the Roaring 20’s, the turn of the century was a time of commercial expanse and led to considerable growth in academic wealth and prestige. As part of a movement to standardize education programs, 14 research-based institutions established the Association of American Universities.
  • The Association’s founders included many of the world’s best such as Yale, Cornell, and John Hopkins. Also an original member of the AAU was Harvard, whose yearly tuition at the time came out at a whopping $150.


1944: The G.I. Bill is passed

  • Near the end of WWII, the G.I. Bill (officially titled the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944”) was passed to provide war veterans the opportunity to learn a skill and reintegrate themselves back into the workforce after serving their country. Because many young men were drafted to the service at the ripe age of 18, the bill was invaluable in educating this generation of war heroes.


1990’s: Student debt begins to pile up and alter life decisions

  • Tuition costs continued to skyrocket during the 90’s, outpacing the rate of inflation by nearly double. At such a ridiculous rate, the government simply could not keep pace with the demand for financial aid.
  • The distribution of Pell Grants, for example, remained the same over this decade, the number of students who took out unsubsidized, federal loans increased by 20%.
  • As students began to incur large amounts of debt, other life decisions such as marriage and childbearing began to take a backseat to these financial burdens.


2007: Cost of attendance breaks $50,000

  • Beginning fall semester, George Washington University became the first college to exceed $50,000 per year for total cost of attendance (tuition + housing + food). Though this covered an incoming freshman’s tuition, housing, and food costs, the figure did not include any separate insurance fees, student supplies, or personal expenses.


2015: Pres. Obama stresses equality, proposes a plan to make community college free

  • A change to the tax code was proposed that would redirects benefits away from wealthy Americans to extend tax credits for college, specifically those in community colleges, making a higher education free to millions.
  • This bold plan is still just a conversation being had; the white house has avoided the questions of where all the funds, likely expensive, will come from exactly.




As you can see, the current price tag of going to college is the result of centuries of change in culture and academic values. However, an end to this alarming trend is nowhere in sight, it’s beginning to leave middle-schoolers (and their parents) wondering just how they’re going to come up with the money to pay for a post-secondary education.