By Jeff Wagner

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — An exciting deadline is looming for high school seniors.

May 1 is known as National Decision Day, the date when students commit to a college. Part of taking that big step is understanding the big costs.

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So why has college gotten more expensive?

Higher education can come at a high price. The cost of attending college has steadily increased over the past two decades.

According to U.S. News and World Report, in 2002 the average yearly tuition at a four-year public university was $3,738. In 2022, it is $11,631.

For a four-year private university, it was about $17,938 20 years ago. Today, it’s $43,775.

“It’s definitely stressful thinking about how expensive it is now and how expensive it will get in the future,” said Malia Pattison, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota.

“I would think a lot of it goes towards like the teaching staff and better facilities for students to learn,” said freshman Jager Eisch.

What has led to the steady increase? A multitude of factors have bumped the costs. Experts say improvements to facilities, dorms, food services, and educational technology raised the price.

Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College who wrote the book “A Problem of Fit: How the Complexity of College Pricing Hurts Students and Universities,” pointed to staff salaries as one of the top reasons.

“People who work in higher educational institutions tend to have more education themselves. One thing that we do know about the labor market in the United States is high wage works have done better. So the workers (universities) tend to hire tend to be higher-priced workers, and their wages have increased at a higher rate,” Levine said.

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As for how tuition is distributed into a university’s budget, think of it as a $100 bill. For every hundred spent, about $61 goes toward education, according to OneClass. Of that $61, nearly $16 goes to faculty salaries, $11.47 goes to general instruction expenses like classrooms, and $9.61 goes auxiliary enterprises like student housing.

“I think that a lot of universities are trying to add like extra benefits for students. Like I know like the Student Rec Center was super expensive. Aome of those costs get put onto students,” said U of M junior Isaac Wolf.

Does the cost of college feel worth it?

“I’d say it really depends on what you want to do,” Wolf said.

The average amount of student loan debt for a college grad is more than $31,000, according to Education Date Initiative. It’s a daunting number, but one Levine hopes won’t scare people away.

“To graduate from college with $20,000 in debt off of an investment that’s gonna pay off in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your lifetime, which is what the evidence shows, that’s a pretty good investment,” Levine said.

He adds that most students don’t pay the full cost of admission found on a university’s website, known as the “sticker price,” at least not up front.

Student loans, grants, and work study jobs help drive down that initial cost by thousands of dollars. He suggests families research the “net price” for the costs of admission, which factors in financial aid.

“That sticker price increase is only paid by higher-income students. Lower income students receive financial aid and their prices have gone up much less,” he said.

Other ways for families to keep the cost of college down is to focus on attending in-state schools versus out-of-state, where the cost of tuition more than doubles.

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Attending a community college for a few years can help save money early on before transferring to a four-year university.

Jeff Wagner