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A Look at College Costs across Generations

A look at college costs across generations

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College costs have risen dramatically over the past several decades across all types of institutions. At four-year schools, average published prices now exceed two-and-a-half times what they were when the oldest baby boomers entered college in 1964–even after adjusting for inflation. While financial aid such as scholarships and grants effectively lowers the price students and families ultimately pay, inflation-adjusted net prices have also increased dramatically over the past 20 years: 63 percent for four-year public institutions and 27 percent for private nonprofit institutions.

These costs, coupled with stagnant incomes, have increasingly put higher education out of reach. As a result, students and families have increasingly turned to borrowing in order to pay for college. Outstanding student loan debt grew from $455 billion in 2004 to $1.5 trillion in 2018.

Increased student debt levels may threaten retirement security for students and their parents alike. If young workers delay saving for retirement due to their student loan payments, they may need to work two to seven years longer just to achieve the same retirement account balances.


Suggested Citation:

Valenti, Joe. A Look at College Costs across Generations. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute, May 21, 2019.


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