In this election year, many people are raising legitimate questions about the cost of college education in the United States.

As a father with one child at university and another one going on college tours over vacation week as a junior in high school, I am very attentive to the costs of higher education. I also am a professor and dean at a university that provides a comparably affordable education for Maine students looking to complete a baccalaureate degree. For better or worse, the cost of education involves a lot more factors than the cost of many products and services and as a public we should educate ourselves about these costs because they will affect many of us now or in the future.

Private colleges and universities, some of which my son toured this past week, often charge more than $60,000 a year for full tuition, fees, room and board. Many families receive considerable financial aid and pay far less than that. But the colleges themselves know that even at full tuition, families are covering only one-third to a half of the cost of a college education; the rest is made up by endowments and grants. At public universities, state governments cover a portion (albeit shrinking) of the cost of educating students.

So even while students legitimately complain about the increasing costs of higher education, tuition and fees only cover a fraction of the costs of their education. There are several drivers for the cost of higher education that may not be well understood among the general public.

First, most of the cost of education is labor costs, and faculty and professionals who serve students do not come cheap, nor should they. These are individuals who have spent a good deal of their life studying in one focused area; they themselves have borne the high costs of college to receive a higher degree. Unlike many areas of our economy, it is impossible to automatize these costs because a good education depends upon the relationship that is built up over time between a teacher and a student. As a result, universities cannot easily be made more economically efficient without risking the important close connections that education is built upon. At UMA, more than 70 percent of our budget consists of salaries and benefits for faculty and staff.

Second, there are many regulations that require universities to protect the health and safety of students. These are legitimate and yet they also drive up the cost of education.

Third, universities are competing against each other for excellent students. Because of this, they often add amenities in their meal plans, fitness centers, and student life areas that drive up the cost of education in order to make education more attractive to students. Finally, for state universities, state funding has decreased over time as a percentage of total budgets for universities. At the University of Maine System, the state appropriation has decreased from about 70 percent of our budget to close to 30 percent today. Over time, this has placed the burden of education on the shoulders of students and families who are paying tuition.

Despite concerns about costs, students and families should take heart — studies repeatedly demonstrate that there is a significant economic return on investing in college education, not to mention the social and civic benefits. In addition, there is financial aid available at most institutions to make college education affordable for families of all income levels.

Greg Fahy is dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he has been since 2012. He also teaches philosophy courses where he encourages students to question assumptions that we all share about philosophical and ethical topics.