KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's no secret college is getting more expensive - but just how much have those costs jumped over the years, and how it does that compare to income?

We'll use the University of Tennessee for our comparisons. For costs, we'll use in-state tuition and fees for one year (fall and spring).

  • 2019-20: Tuition and fees were $13,264
  • 1982-83: Tuition and fees were $867

Now let's get some perspective. Paying $867 for something this year isn't the same as paying $867 in 1982. This article is written for students and parents, not economists, so let's not bother adjusting for inflation and all that headache. Instead, let's focus on how much money people were making, compared to the cost of college that year. 

We pulled income data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Labor. The most recent numbers were from 2018, so we'll use UT costs from that year.


  • UT tuition and fees: $13,006
  • Median U.S. household income: $63,179
  • Minimum wage: $7.25/hr ($14,500 annual)


  • UT tuition and fees: $867
  • Median U.S. household income: $20,170
  • Minimum wage: $3.35/hr ($6,700 annual)

It means that while people are making a lot more money now, colleges like UT cost more money too - and tuition is increasing much faster. Here's the disparity:

Chart showing growth by percentage of incomes and UT tuition.
Google Sheets

From 1982 to 2018, college costs at UT grew by 1430%, while median income grew by 213%, and minimum wage grew by 116%. 

For comparing college affordability, note that these figures don't account for the introduction and adjustment of various state and federal scholarships over the years. Also note that while we used national income numbers here, Tennessee's median income was often lower than the rest of the country.

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