During the 1978 - 1979 school year, it cost the modern equivalent of $17,680 per year to attend a private college and $8,250 per year to attend a public college. By the 2008 - 2009 school year those costs had grown to $38,720 at private colleges and $16,460 at public colleges.
Today, those costs are closer to $48,510 and $21,370, respectively. That means costs increased by roughly 25.3% at private colleges and about 29.8% at public colleges.
Still, earning a college degree remains a strong investment.
In 2018, college graduates earned weekly wages that were 80% higher than those of high school graduates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans with a bachelor's degree have median weekly earnings of $1,173, compared to just $712 a week for those who have a high school diploma.
But as the cost of college has increased and student debt has become a national concern, Americans have begun to question if college is worth the cost.
Here's how much college costs have increased over the last decade, in 2018 dollars, according to most recent data from The College Board:
College costs have risen at both public and private institutions over the past decade — here's why.
Lackluster state funding is a major reason for rising college costs.
From 2008 to 2018, the average tuition at four-year public colleges increased in all 50 states. On average, tuition at these schools has increased by 37%, and net costs (including factors like scholarships and grants) have increased by 24%, according to a 2019 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The CBPP report analyzes state funding for higher education and published in-state public college costs from the 2008 school year to the 2018 school year. Researchers Michael Mitchell, Michael Leachman and Matt Saenz found that funding for higher education has not rebounded to pre-recession levels in most states, and that college costs are rising as a result.
From the 2008 school year to the 2018 school year, 41 states spent less per student, after adjusting for inflation. During that time period, states spent an average of 13% less per student — about $1,220.
"It really does start to beg the question of what constitutes public higher education," Michael Mitchell, lead author of the report and senior director and counselor of Equity and Inclusion at the CBPP told CNBC Make It. "Nearly every state has shifted the responsibility of funding higher education from the state to students over the last 25 years, with the most drastic shift occurring in the past decade."
Several of the states with the biggest drops in per-student spending have seen significant tuition increases.
In Louisiana, for instance, published tuition at public four-year colleges and universities has doubled since the 2008 school year. In Alabama and Arizona, tuition at public colleges and universities is up by more than 60%.
Per-student funding for higher education has increased in nine states since the Great Recession — New York, Montana, California, Alaska, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Wyoming, North Dakota and Illinois — but average tuition at public universities has still increased in all 50 states.
Mitchell said college costs can rise even in states that increase funding because there are other factors that influence college finances, including cost of living.
″[State funding] is a factor — a relatively sizable factor — but other things also play a role," said Mitchell. "Health-care cost, retirement costs for faculty and staff, infrastructure, things like that. While state spending is one variable, it exists in a broader range of calculations."
One of those variables is cost of living. In the United States, cost of living has steadily increased over the past several years. College students are not immune to the impact of this increase, since many American students choose to move away from home and live on campus or near campus.
Increased cost of living also impacts how much colleges spend on employees. For instance, health-care costs increased significantly this decade, including those costs paid by employers.
A typical trope is that colleges today spend exorbitantly on frivolous luxuries such as climbing walls, hot tubs and lazy rivers for students. This kind of spending is rare.
"Lazy rivers are only a tiny piece of the costs," David Feldman, professor of economics at the College of William & Mary and co-author of "Why Does College Cost So Much?" told Inside Higher Ed. "These lazy rivers are not the reason why student debt is soaring seemingly out of control. The big problem that higher education faces today, at the public side, is cuts in state spending."
According to a report titled "Pulling Up the Higher-Ed Ladder: Myth and Reality in the Crisis of College Affordability" from public policy think tank Demos, higher education funding cuts are responsible for 79% of tuition increases.
The report estimates that just 6% of tuition increases were caused by spending on construction, and 5% were caused by increased administrative costs associated with hiring part-time and full-time staff in areas such as admissions.
Since schools must sort through record-breaking numbers of applications, some increase in spending in these areas is to be expected.
Regardless of the cause for the increase in college costs, the issue remains that students today are being put in a nearly impossible position.
"In today's competitive economy, nothing is more important than getting a college education," reads the Demos report. "Yet college tuition costs in the U.S. have been increasing at a breakneck pace, making college unaffordable for millions of Americans."
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