Tony Frank: 鶹the price tag

This week and next, our flagship campus will start sending out financial aid awards to returning students. This is happening later than usual at CSU and every other campus because of the revamping of the federal FAFSA forms – and we know that students and families are anxious to learn what kind of support they’ll receive in paying next year’s college costs.

Most students in the US receive some form of financial aid to attend college: federal and state grants, loans, institutional scholarships, private scholarships, work-study, and more. That’s true of our CSU campuses: 60% of undergraduates at CSU Fort Collins receive some type of aid; 70% at CSU Pueblo; and 30% at CSU Global. And since 2011, our flagship campus has covered the full amount of tuition and fees for our lowest-income Colorado students, effectively shielding them from increasing tuition costs over that time. CSU Pueblo has instituted a similar plan. CSU Global held tuition steady without an increase for over a decade.

We worry a lot about the cost of education and keeping it affordable for Colorado students. And we also know, from a considerable amount of research, that most people in Colorado think college costs more than it does.

Every couple of years, we work with a research team out of Broomfield, Magellan Strategies, to survey Coloradans on their perceptions of CSU and Colorado higher education, including cost. This data helps us keep our pulse on the concerns and expectations of the taxpayers who fund our campuses, as well as families and students who may be looking at college as an option.

While CSU continues to earn strong marks for the quality of education provided and the value of the degrees earned, there are other, more concerning trends. The most disturbing and the hardest to debunk are the persistent misperceptions around the cost of a degree.

In our latest survey, we asked respondents to rank the importance of various attributes of a college or university. “Affordable tuition” was at the top of the list.

But when asked to guess the annual tuition rates at CSU, only 27% of respondents got it right at $15,000 or less (average tuition and fees for full-time Colorado undergraduates was $12,896 at CSU Fort Collins in 2023-24). Almost 60% of those we asked thought the cost would be anywhere from $15,000 a year to more than $40,000 a year.

This misunderstanding about the cost of education also translates into heightened concerns about student debt. Of those we interviewed, 54% imagined that in-state students graduating from CSU would carry an average debt load of more than $30,000. In reality, nearly half of CSU graduates leave the university with no loan debt at all, and of those that do, the average debt is around $26,000, below the national average. (And debt loads for Colorado graduates statewide have been steadily declining since 2014.)

It’s also well-documented that most college graduates will recoup their investment in their education many times over through their increased earnings over the life of their career.

Of course, there are other aspects to this discussion. Students also have to pay for their housing, dining, and travel expenses on top of tuition and fees. And some campuses and programs are more expensive than others. But those costs are reflected in the debt levels at graduation, and as the numbers show, average student debt for Colorado students remains reasonable and below national peers.

I’ve talked about these issues on a daily basis since roughly 2008, probably putting an awful lot of people to sleep in service clubs in community centers and church meeting halls over those years. And obviously I haven’t made much of a dent in the public perception. People continue to think college is more expensive, less accessible, and more of a burden over a lifetime than it actually is. And unfortunately, these misunderstandings will deter some talented people from pursuing an education that could significantly improve their financial and career situations over their lifetimes.

With our partners at CU, we tried a third-party-designed social media campaign last year. We didn’t move the needle much. In fact, over time, we know a lot about what hasn’t worked to dispel these misperceptions. And while as a career scientist, I can argue that a well-designed experiment provides new information even with a “negative” outcome, I also recall my Little League coach telling us that at some point we needed to score some runs to win the game. I’m afraid we haven’t been scoring many runs in the area of perception.

As readers who care about these issues, I ask you to consider this question: How do we counter the prevailing and false narrative around the cost of public higher education? How do we help more students see college as a possibility? How do we ensure that more students know there is a financial aid award with their name on it that can help make the cost more manageable than they might have imagined?

I welcome your thoughts.

– tony

Tony Frank, Chancellor
CSU System

This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s May newsletter. to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.