State schools were once a more affordable alternative to private colleges but as Scott Thurm of the Wall Street Journal reports, that’s not always the case anymore.

Who Can Still Afford State U ?

When Steve Joiner attended the University of Colorado in Boulder in the late 1980s, his parents—an Air Force mechanical supervisor and a teacher—paid his tab of about $4,000 a year, roughly $8,600 in today’s dollars. He earned a master’s degree and became a high-school math teacher.

In August, Mr. Joiner’s daughter Akaysha, the valedictorian of her high-school class, enrolled at CU, as the big campus here is known. But tuition, room, board and books for in-state students is now $23,000 a year—a sum Mr. Joiner and his wife, a social worker, weren’t prepared for.

The big difference between now and then: Though Colorado taxpayers now provide more funding in absolute terms, those funds cover a much smaller share of CU’s total spending, which has grown enormously. In 1985, when Mr. Joiner was a freshman, state appropriations paid 37% of the Boulder campus’s $115 million “general fund” budget. In the current academic year, the state is picking up 9% of a budget that has grown to $600 million.

A number of factors have helped to fuel the soaring cost of public colleges. Administrative costs have soared nationwide, and many administrators have secured big pay increases—including some at CU, in 2011. Teaching loads have declined for tenured faculty at many schools, adding to costs. Between 2001 and 2011, the Department of Education says, the number of managers at U.S. colleges and universities grew 50% faster than the number of instructors. What’s more, schools have spent liberally on fancier dorms, dining halls and gyms to compete for students.