Adjusting for inflation, (without too much controversy, I expect), it is evident that college was more affordable in the past. See for example, this chart of Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time, 1975-76 to 2015-16.

And yet, in the United States in 1980, roughly only 15% of the population had a college degree. It seems to me to be a very economical choice to attend. Are there reasons for the low graduation rate?

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    My first stab at it is that the cost to the student, and the academic requirements for acceptance, are about inversely proportional. Dec 7, 2015 at 21:07
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    Have you looked into whether people needed a college degree to get the jobs they wanted? Nowadays a college degree is required for many jobs that didn't used to need it
    – Ric
    Dec 7, 2015 at 21:28
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    This is not a forum! It's a Q&A site. The point of opening a post here isn't to create discussion, as in a forum, but to get an answer, hence the question should be as clear and complete as possible. If you don't keep this in might you'll find that a lot of your questions gets closed as unclear/too broad/off topic.
    – Bakuriu
    Dec 8, 2015 at 14:29
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    Part of the answer is surely credential creep: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credentialism_and_educational_inflation
    – user1482
    Dec 8, 2015 at 15:29
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    @Bakuriu And it seems the question is pretty clear, though maybe a bit broad in scope. Anyway, no reason to shout. Dec 8, 2015 at 23:26

6 Answers 6


There are many factors!

  • In the past there was much less demand for highly educated people, as there were many more jobs that were mostly manual labour. Technology is largely to blame for this, as computers and machines take over what we had to do with our heads and hands.
  • People were more likely to work in one job for their whole life, so there was less incentive to get a more general education.
  • Apprenticeships were more common, so you'd learn on the job rather than study at university.
  • It was easier in the past to "work your way up the company" – you'd start as a front-line grunt, and have a good chance of becoming a manager later on.
  • Children with poorly educated parents are much less likely to go to university. Starting off 100 years ago when almost everyone was poorly educated, it's actually taken remarkably few generations to get where we are now.
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    Great answer. The first four bullets can be summarized by saying that the costs of college were lower, but the rewards of going to college were also lower (maybe more so).
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 8, 2015 at 2:11
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    High school educations were arguably better as well and marked a level of academic achievement they no longer do.
    – virmaior
    Dec 8, 2015 at 5:14
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    @virmaior shakes cane. Well, school education has definitely changed, but (in absence of any first-hand experience) I'm not sure if I'd prefer the "old" system. With computer usage quickly becoming very widespread, I do worry that the most recent generations are losing the ability to do such things as simple arithmetic. But that's a bit off-topic...
    – Moriarty
    Dec 8, 2015 at 9:20
  • Yeah, I didn't comment at all on what's better overall for a society. Just that one of the apples in this apples to oranges is a shift in the value (both in the perception of society and in the content) of the degrees south of the university.
    – virmaior
    Dec 8, 2015 at 9:35
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    I would disagree with the first bullet point, certainly there is a higher demand for those with degrees, however, there is a huge shortage of people with manual labour skills. Many people argue that it was a large-scale PR campaign for a college education. Mike Rowe has a few great interviews talking about this topic.
    – Tyzoid
    Dec 8, 2015 at 10:20

Even though the cost of tuition was lower, the opportunity cost of going to college was higher in the past. Going to college means you do not have time to work, so you in effect give up the pay from working by going to college. While, nowadays, one struggles to find a near-minimum wage job making $20K/yr without a college degree, it used to be possible (for men) to get a factory job paying the current equivalent of $40K/yr without a college degree. Hence, in effect, college is actually cheaper now.

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    That last point is at least somewhat dependent on (1) the choice of college (private vs. public) and (2) the choice of major (some actually hurt your earnings potential).
    – tonysdg
    Dec 8, 2015 at 5:47
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    1) The vast majority of college attendees are at non-selective public institutions; when looking at statistics about the entire college-going population, non-profit privates are only a drop in the bucket. 2) People only go into majors that hurt their earnings potential because those majors pay off in non-economic ways. Dec 8, 2015 at 5:57
  • Both very good points!!
    – tonysdg
    Dec 8, 2015 at 5:59
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    If the price of a good has doubled (at least) relative to wages, "cheaper" is not the word that would ordinarily be used to describe change in the price of the good. You're talking about "opportunity cost", which is not synonymous with "cost". Cheap college is a better option than expensive college. They formerly had an option that was better for them than cheap college. That option is gone. Now their best option is to pay massively inflated prices for what used to be their second-best option. That's not an improvement for them, it's a disaster. Dec 8, 2015 at 15:14
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    ...still, this is the correct answer: Colleges can charge surreal prices because better opportunities for ordinary young people are now extremely rare. It's like having a monopoly on a life-saving drug: The sky's the limit. Squeeze them dry. Dec 8, 2015 at 15:39

From a UK perspective, it's a matter of market forces.

Originally (pre-1900), universities were mostly funded by fee-paying students. Costs were high, but only students from rich families could afford to attend. Places were limited mainly by the number of rich people. Ability was not necessarily a pre-requisite. There were a large number of institutions which funded people without money but with significant skills, but they were a definite minority.

Then the government started funding universities - especially after WWI, there was a strong feeling that everyone (all men anyway; women at universities is a separate issue!) should be given equal opportunities to advance themselves, and universities changed to being mostly funded by government (with some extra from the private sector). Cost to students was zero, but government funding was limited. Every student takes money to teach, so the number of places was limited to what the university could afford. As a result, university places were selective, and only the most able could attend. (Some universities still allowed rich kids to buy their way in, but they were a minority.)

In the 1990s, this changed again. For various political reasons (which I won't go into), government grants for living whilst studying were removed, universities received funding based on the number of students regardless of the value of the courses to the student or the country as a whole, and universities were allowed to charge tuition fees. Now every student was a cash cow, so the incentive was for universities to admit anyone, of any ability, and milk them to the maximum. The majority of students receive no benefit from their courses compared to the experience they would have gained from three years of work, and are tens of thousands of pounds in debt.

And that's where we are today.

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    "The majority of students receive no benefit from their courses compared to the experience they would have gained from three years of work" How very true, shame there is not more workplace based training.
    – Ian
    Dec 8, 2015 at 23:00
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    Is that really the majority? Are there really that many "Football Media Studies" degree courses being taken up? A quick google gives Business Management, Law, Sociology, Art and Design, IT, Psychology, Education, Nursing, Bioscience, History as the most popular courses in the UK (whatever most popular means). None of these are Mickey Mouse. (Though of course as an Engineer I have my doubts about Sociology and Psychology.) Interesting that nurses are now expected to have degrees.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 9, 2015 at 9:16
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    @RedSonja: There is a widespread sentiment among software engineers that those who get turned out by "IT studies" (Computer Science, mostly) are pretty useless for the actual job unless either a) having a history of actually programming as a hobby or b) undergoing extensive tutoring on-the-job. As for business management, I'll hold my tongue... and I can't judge on the other subjects. But formal qualification <> competence... (After checking your profile I realize you're from the same trade, and probably know the type: draws a neuronal network in no time but have never touched a debugger...)
    – DevSolar
    Dec 9, 2015 at 11:02
  • @RedSonja It's necessary to differentiate between courses which are intellectually rigorous and courses which provide a benefit to the student's career. I have no objection to students studying these courses at their own expense, but there seems to be little thought about whether the students get £50k worth of benefit. I'm particularly aware of Music Technology, where hundreds of students annually compete for low-double-digit numbers of roles (most of which go to graduates of two or three highly-selective courses).
    – Graham
    Dec 9, 2015 at 11:13
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    @RedSonja point out a very clear example: Nurses used to have a diploma (from a teaching hospital) and now have a degree. In many other fields something similar has happened. I'm familiar with this in engineering, but in many business field as well, people can't progress without degrees in roles that wouldn't hav been expected to require a degree a few decades ago.
    – Chris H
    Dec 9, 2015 at 12:03

In the UK at least, part of the answer is that the relationship goes the other way. University is more expensive now because the costs used to be covered by the government, but as the number of students has risen the proportion paid by the government has dropped.


Its because feeding the family was more important back then, than getting a college a degree. Just like Maslow's hierarchy.. Food, Shelter and clothing was more important than education. So people's priority was getting any source of income whatsoever with or without college education, whichever occurs first.

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    This could reasonably have been a factor, say, pre-welfare state. The OP explicitly looks at 1975, by which time food, shelter and clothing was not an issue in the US any more. Dec 9, 2015 at 10:27

One important reason was the influx of women into higher education (and the professions). Today, more women than men graduate from college, fifty years ago, perhaps half as many women did. So while the percentage of college-attending men and women both rose over this time, it did so much more for women.

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