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Economic In-tuition Figure 2

The Cost of Comfort: Rising College Expenses

Students need to decide what they want out of their college experience and then pick their college accordingly. 

For anyone who has watched the construction on South Green of the four new suite-style dorms the past two years, it’s difficult to not be impressed by their sheer size and capacity. By the time the dorms are finished, they will house around 900 students total in an effort to help accommodate the growing student population and the abundance of outdated dorms on Ohio University’s South Green. Even more impressive is the project’s price tag — a $110 million budget, $100 million is which is financed by loans. These buildings represent more than just an expensive, new university-funded housing project; they are a part of a growing trend of college bundling and marketing that is helping drive up the cost of higher education.

Most of us take university housing for granted. In fact, housing is just one of those amenities that public universities regularly provide their students. Everything from food to entertainment to socialization is included in the college bundle; perhaps more commonly called “the college experience.” Many college administrators, with some truth, would undoubtedly claim that the “college experience” is one of the unique advantages of a college education. But what is the cost of the non-educational aspects of the college experience and how has it changed through time?

A good place to begin in determining this is examining room and board costs. Tuition is important too, but room and board costs are unique because they represent a portion of college costs that are entirely separate from educational costs, though generally required due to minimum residency graduation requirements.

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(Figure 1: Change in room and board costs per quarter at Ohio University from 1971-2011. All numbers adjusted for inflation to 2015 dollars by the Bureau for Labor Statistics. Source: Ohio University.)

Factoring in inflation, room and board costs at OU have been increasing since the 1980s with a sharper increase in the last 10 years (see Figure 1). Adjusted for inflation, living on campus for a semester is now $1,000 more expensive than it was in 1980.

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(Figure 2: National average of tuition and room and board costs per year at public universities from 1971-2015, all numbers adjusted for inflation to 2014 dollars. Source: The College Board.)

OU is not alone in this change. Nationally, public universities are experiencing similar increases — room and board costs often mirror or surpass costs of tuition (see Figure 2). Given this, and speaking from a strictly monetary sense, universities value the residential and dining aspects of college just as much as the actual education. Most would find it ironic that institutions in the market of higher education also find themselves so deeply invested in the housing and food industries.

What is causing this emphasis in the non-educational aspects of college? It is hard to say for sure because so many variables are in play, but two significant factors include marketing and advertising competition between colleges. With thousands of different institutions throughout the United States, universities are pressured to keep their facilities current with other competing universities. Construction and maintenance of state-of-art infrastructure is by no means cheap, but student loans ensure that potential students have low price elasticity, and thus are less sensitive to increases in college costs that might arise from greater university spending on non-educational amenities. When you put these together, schools have an incentive to increase prices to cover costs and students are willing and able to take on the burden of these costs. The result? More food, housing and entertainment; and a more costly education.

A college rep can go into great detail discussing the educational benefits of his or her school, but statistics on retention rates, post-graduate salaries, internship programs and research opportunities might not hold the listener’s attention like pictures of the new dorms, swimming pool or golf course would. This effect becomes even stronger on college tours. It is not hard to imagine the effect impressive infrastructure has on the individual. New modern campuses, complete with towering dorms, fancy recreational facilities and sprawling student centers look infinitely more attractive than simple classrooms or small libraries.

So what can we do about rising student costs? The difficulty is that it will take efforts by both universities and the students that attend them to make these changes. Universities set the standards for what higher education entails and while it might be up to them to initiate actual reform, they will not do so unless they believe it is desirable to students. Thus, students need to decide what they want out of their college experience and then pick their college accordingly. Do they want more non-educational amenities at a higher cost or do they want fewer amenities at a lower cost? It’s up to the student. But for change to happen, decisions fall on both students and universities.

Rob Hammer is a junior studying anthropology and economics at Ohio University and a research assistant at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Columns will be written by a different CCAP student from Ohio University each week. Email Rob at

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