Editor's Note: Factual inaccuracies have been corrected.

When Elon University sophomore Adam Gill was choosing which college to attend, he had five schools from which to choose. He ultimately decided on Elon, because it had everything he wanted.

That is, everything except financial aid.

“I ended up choosing Elon because it was the program I wanted, everything fit in,” Gill said. “But I was very aware of how the money situation was going to fit in throughout my four years.”

Although Elon spent $31.9 million in financial aid in 2012, which was allocated to about 3,800 students, Gill did not receive any federal aid or scholarship money that would help him afford a four-year education at Elon. Instead, he and his parents are pinching pennies in order to pay tuition, room and board and other expenses.

“I’m looking into going into debt after leaving this school,” Gill said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do after next year, actually.”

Gill’s situation is similar to that of the thousands of college students who are struggling to keep up with rising tuition costs and increasing debt. According to an article from CNN Money, graduates from the Class of 2013 are facing an average $35,200 in college-related debt, the bulk of which comes from government loans. The amount of debt students accumulate has steadily increased from year to year, leaving students to choose between the quality of their education and the price of admission.

Building a better future — at a price

After experiencing a 3.9 percent increase, Elon’s tuition crossed the $40,000 threshold for the 2013-2014 school year. The increase wasn’t unexpected, though: The cost of attendance at Elon has been steadily rising for the last decade, with increases sometimes as substantial as 8.6 percent in just one year.

According to Gerald Whittington, senior vice president for business, finance and technology, tuition increases are an inherent part of running a university and employing its workers.

“The single largest expense that we have at Elon is people costs — faculty, staff,”  Whittington said. “Those are salaries, health care, other benefits. So even if you did nothing else but say, ‘We’re just going to take care of those expenses,’ it would take more to run the institution next year than it did this year.”

Although administrators won’t announce the 2014-2015 budget until February, Whittington did say cost of attendance is anticipated to go up again, if only for “people costs.”

“When you grow the number of students, you’re growing the number of faculty and that type of thing,” he said. “The type of institution that you are — in our case, experiential education with lots of high-contact, high-impact opportunities for our students — those are labor-driven costs.”

Patrick Murphy, director of financial planning at Elon, also indicated tuition increases are somewhat inevitable, regardless of the state of the economy.

“There’s a good number of students that seem to feel that Elon lives in an economic bubble where our costs don’t go up,” Murphy said. “And we have to pay for things like gasoline, teachers’ salaries, all the things that a household has to pay for. That’s why things go up each year.”

But Elon’s expenditures haven’t only been of the household variety. In addition to enhancing academic initiatives, establishing new standards for athletics and developing alumni programs, the Elon Commitment — a 10-year strategic plan for the university — focuses largely on building new facilities that will improve students’ quality of education, an endeavor that has been quite costly in the last several years.

Three of Elon’s newest facilities — the Station at Mill Point, Lakeside Dining Hall and the Numen Lumen Pavilion — landed on the Business Journal’s list of the Triad’s largest completed construction projects in the last year. The Station at Mill Point, which houses 324 juniors and seniors in two- and four-unit apartments, cost $17 million, the 12th most expensive construction project in the surrounding area.

For many Elon students, the answer is simple: If Elon stops expanding, the cost of attendance will plateau.

Murphy assured students that is not the case.

“It’s not like, when we raise tuition, that we’re just doing so arbitrarily,” he said. “It is very budget-based so we know exactly how much revenue we’re going to have coming in to pay for the things that the students are asking for.”

And according to Whittington, the expensive price tags on Elon’s new facilities are well worth the cost.

“Why are we getting bigger? Because everybody is beating down the door to come here,” Whittington said. “We’re doing something that people find value in. You actually get to do things [here] that, at a larger state institution, they just don’t have the resources to do. As long as we continue to have that, we’ll still be in demand. Great demand, as a matter of fact.”

Determining quality over quantity

As costs of attendance have risen nationwide, the value of a college education has become increasingly important.

According to CNN Money, only 12 percent of 2013 graduates felt their college education was not worth the debt they accumulated throughout four years. The majority of students, despite owing thousands upon graduation, felt as though the quality of their education was worth the cost.

“[Students] are looking at that cost-value proposition, and they’re saying, ‘Yeah, it might cost this, but it’s worth it because I’m going to have a return on my investment that’ll be sufficient for me and my family. It’ll provide opportunities and experiences that I’m just not going to get elsewhere,’” Whittington said.

[quote]Why are we getting bigger? Because everybody is beating down the door to come here. -- Gerald Whittington, senior vice president of business, finance and technology[/quote]

Although he has a substantial financial burden weighing on his shoulders, Gill said he believes the Elon education is of a high enough quality to warrant paying $40,000 a year.

“I think, from what Elon offers, it’s going to be worth it,” Gill said. “I’m in the business school, and I have a lot more career potential. I love the one-on-one aspect, and I’ve been able to succeed in that environment.”

In fact, even though four other universities accepted Gill and offered him financial aid and scholarships, Elon’s curriculum outweighed all of that.

“I could have been going to Virginia Tech for probably half the price, but comparing business programs, I feel like I’ll get more out of being here than at that school,” he said.

Video by Jason Puckett, reporter.

The question now, though, is not whether Elon’s education is worth the price. It is whether Elon’s tuition will reach a number so high that the education is no longer worth it.

Whittington said he fears that will happen — it’s just a matter of when.

“We’re concerned about that because nobody has a real handle, nationally, about how the public is going to come down on the questions,” he said. “I think there will be some who will have that conversation with themselves and their families.”

But even for students who do find themselves in a financial bind, there are alternatives, Whittington said.

“We may perhaps see a change in the number of students who might take a year or two at a community college or public institution and then transfer [to Elon] for the last two or three years,” he said. “Many of our students get double majors and make themselves more competitive in the marketplace by having double majors. The question is whether that will continue.”

Although he didn’t anticipate attending community college, Gill has contemplated several of the options Whittington put forth.

“I considered the community college route, but my parents wanted me to go to a four-year college,” he said. “I’ve considered graduating early, and I still do. My current track is a double major, and I’d have to drop one of those majors to do that. But I’ve considered that, because it would save a substantial amount of money that would otherwise be debt.”

How Elon compares

For Gill and other students who are paying their way through college, the $40,000 that Elon currently charges is quite steep.

But in comparison to other private four-year universities in North Carolina, Elon is actually on the cheaper end of the spectrum. Although Elon’s cost of attendance is comparable to that of High Point University — about $43,000 — it is far less expensive than Duke University and Wake Forest University, both of which cost full-time undergraduates about $60,000 a year.

According to Murphy, putting things in perspective is crucial for Elon students who are struggling to pay tuition.

“If you compare our tuition to a lot of the other private schools that we’re compared with, we’re generally in the range of about $10,000 less,” Murphy said. “The dollar amount of tuition is very carefully thought out. We do map out everything that has to be paid for to be able to provide the services that the students want.”

And yet, students like Gill still have a hard time meeting Elon’s financial requirements, often because they are not given financial aid or scholarship money, even when it is well-deserved.

“I know I’m in that weird bracket where they’re not going to pay me anything financially. What annoys me is, I have a 3.94 GPA at the moment,” Gill said. “I’m an RA, I’m in two executive positions on campus, I’ve proven myself, I’m now a Business Fellow. They’re not giving me any type of scholarship money, and I know kids here that are slacking off that are getting money through scholarships. I feel like they should do a re-evaluation of scholarship activity.”

The “weird bracket” in which Gill’s family resides is one that doesn’t allow him to receive any financial aid from Elon. His father makes too much money to qualify for aid, but he does not make enough to front the entire cost of Elon with his salary alone.

The interactive image above highlights each construction project brought on by the Elon Commitment.

Murphy said it is common for Elon students and their families to be essentially stuck in limbo.

“We do have a lot of students that are paying the full rate, but that’s based on the results of the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and CSS profile [which a student submits before applying to colleges],” Murphy said. “We get results that tell us what a family should be expected to pay toward education. Overall, we do spend a majority of our financial aid on the most needy students.”

According to both Murphy and Whittington, Elon recognizes the need for more available financial aid. Elon is currently struggling to compete with universities like Duke and Wake Forest, which have large endowments that provide plenty of scholarship money. To combat that, Elon completed the Ever Elon campaign in 2012, the school’s first-ever campaign for endowments.

“We raised millions and millions and millions in endowment for scholarships,” Whittington said. “We need to continue to do that. The cost of education is such that it’s important to continue to do that.”

Whittington also said it is largely the responsibility of the student’s family to save tuition money throughout the years. Although Elon does offer a number of scholarships for select students participating in the Fellows programs, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and the engineering program, among others, families should not expect to rely on financial aid and scholarship money alone.

[quote]My mom, who’s been a stay-at-home mom, started working again just for me. I have that type of weight on my shoulders. I have a lot of pressure to do well, be successful. -- Adam Gill, sophomore[/quote]

“Most of that advice that you hear — the talking heads on TV, ‘Start saving for your children’s education now’ — it’s the right advice,” Whittington said. “If you did it, you’d be able to afford it. But if you don’t, you’re going to be saying, ‘The cost of college is too much. I can’t afford it.’”

Whittington has a point. According to a June 2013 study published by Mother Jones, only 37 percent of middle-income parents said they had a plan to pay for college before their children enrolled. For high-income parents, 57 percent said they had a plan.

But Gill, whose parents saved for him before he went to college, said he feels differently, especially because he is working closely with his parents to pay Elon’s tuition.

“They’ve saved me ‘x’ amount of money, but that ‘x’ amount of money is not going to be able to cover my four years here,” Gill said. “My mom, who’s been a stay-at-home mom, started working again just for me. And then I feel bad, as well. I have that type of weight on my shoulders. I have a lot of pressure to do well, be successful.”

And in a college atmosphere of constant stress and studying, Gill said it’s about more than just the money. It’s about feeling wanted by one’s school.

“It felt like Elon didn’t want me, while these other schools [that offered me scholarship money] did,” Gill said. “I was accepted, but I still didn’t feel like I was wanted in that aspect. If you’re a good student and you’re doing well, you should feel like the school you’re going to wants you, wants you enough to help you in some way"