As school administrators try to avoid bursting the “higher education bubble” by spending more after getting get less from their states, tuition costs are now putting higher education out of reach for many Americans.

Wall Street Journal contributor Scott Thurm comes to this conclusion after taking a look at tuition costs, past and present. He also notes that schools are being out-competed for tax dollars by entitlement programs.

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.

  Public universities have long been an attractive, affordable option for families with limited resources, but over the past decade, tuitions have skyrocketed. WSJ’s Scott Thurm discusses with Weekend Review editor Gary Rosen.

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

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.

With total student-loan debt approaching the trillion-dollar mark, WSJ’s Jason Bellini deconstructs how we got here and what it all means.

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.’

Thurm indicates that state institutions are losing out to entitlement programs,

Over the last 25 or 30 years, public higher education has lost out in the competition for state funds with Medicaid,” says Cornell University professor Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. “There’s so much pressure to spend money on other things.”

…”The state obligations in Medicaid, prisons and K-12 education are just swallowing up state budgets,” says John Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 research universities, public and private.