(WTNH) – Over the years, tuition costs have skyrocketed in the United States. The result is trillion-dollar student debt and declining enrollment.

In a two-part series, News 8 is digging into just how much the price of higher education has increased, what families can do to help drive the cost down, and how it’s affecting young adults’ career paths and the workforce as a whole.

Tuition increases have long-time outpaced incomes. Experts say the inflation of college tuition has exceeded all other goods and services. A University of Connecticut freshman says cost was the biggest factor in deciding which school to attend.

For thousands of students and their families, paying for college or attending at all remains a painful struggle. While enrollment is down, the cost of college has exploded as increasing numbers of young people look for alternatives.

“Eighty thousand dollars a year and that’s just tuition,” said Eric Meade Jr., UConn Freshman. “A little taken aback.”

The rising rates for college outpace the rate of inflation by 171% annually, according to the Education Data Initiative. In 1980, the price to attend a four-year college, including housing, was under $3,000. In 2020, it’s over $21,000. The price tag is a deciding factor for many, including first-year UConn student Eric Meade Jr.

“What it really came down to was UConn gave me more scholarship money and then I had the instate tuition here,” Meade said. “Mostly, what it was, was money.”

The cost kept Meade closer to home being from Beacon Falls. His in-state tuition is $15,000 and the Merit scholarship he was awarded covers half, with room and board an additional $15,000. While the scholarship helps, Meade says no need-based aid didn’t.

“I got no financial aid, which is weird because my mom is a stay-at-home mom,” Meade said. “We only have one income and like I said, three of us are in college and he’s taking out loans, my sister’s taking out loans, I’m going to be taking out loans.”

The end result for Meade was $22,500 per year with thousands of dollars in loans for his parents and himself.

Connecticut ranks 5th in the country for the highest in-state university cost. Loans have become the norm.

“It is actually at this point exceeded all other goods and services in society,” said David Martin, President of Advanced College Planning. “Colleges on average go up on average 10 percent a year and there’s no end in sight right now.”

There are four million fewer students in college today compared to ten years ago. The most significant decline is in the Northeast and Midwest, according to Jon Marcus, the senior editor at “The Hechinger Report.” That’s where fewer students are coming out of high school, but the biggest reason why admission numbers are declining is the soaring cost.

“It’s not a secret that for decades, the cost of college has been increasing and people have struggled to pay it,” Marcus said. “They’ve often borrowed to pay it, which has resulted in the student loan crisis, which we’ve been hearing quite a lot about.”

Advanced College Planning in Rocky Hill calls the situation dire. It’s why President David Martin helps families and students priced out by tuition try to get more money from the schools.

“You really don’t want to have to go out and take out a bunch of loans for this, especially nowadays, with interest rates going through the roof,” Martin said. “College loan costs are going to be way more expensive. Interest rates could surpass ten percent just for a college loan.”

Advanced College Planning has these tips:

  • Get a 529 College Savings Plan as soon as possible. Start earlier so you don’t have to catch up later on.
  • For parents paying, have your children chip in. Martin says kids who help pay on average outperform their peers, take less time to graduate, and take on more responsibility.
  • Stay in-state for state colleges and universities to save.
  • Lower your expected family contribution to get more need-based aid.

“The biggest variable is your adjusted gross income,” Martin said. “What you and your spouse make and bring to the table. The second one would be what non-qualified or non-retirement assets you have that shouldn’t be there to be able to qualify, which most people don’t know. For example, if you have $150,000 in savings, that could hurt you from getting the opportunity to get $9,000 a year in need-based aid.”

After receiving no need-based financial aid, Meade advises fellow college students to apply for every scholarship possible. He says loans will always be in the back of his mind.

“It does motivate me more because I know I have to pay back the loans,” Meade said. “I still want to graduate and everything, but this gives extra incentive, but also, it’s a little scary at the same time because I don’t know what the future will look like.”

Despite declining enrollment at some colleges across the country, Martin says the demand will always be there, keeping tuition high.

“Colleges will always fill the seats and unfortunately if the price is up to $80,000 that tells me they know they can get it and it’s going to keep going up because they know they can get the tuition,” Martin said. “I mean, $80,000, I would have never thought 25 or 30 years ago that college would cost this much.”

The current higher education dropout rate is around 40%. The leading reason is students can’t afford to pay tuition.

The secret most universities don’t like to advertise is that you can negotiate your tuition.