October 23rd, 2009

Putting College within Reach

The College Board released a report Tuesday, Trends in College Pricing — and the trend, unsurprisingly, continues a decades-long climb upward. Published tuition and fees at public 4-year colleges rose by an average of 6.5% since last year, from $6,591/year to $7,020.  The increase was 4.4% at private colleges, from $25,177 to $26,273. Click to enlarge an illustration of growth over time, from 94-95 to 09-10:

As you can see in the chart, there is some good news.  Net costs — what students actually end up paying, once financial aid is taken into account — declined over the past five years, but as the report’s authors remind us, assessing the impact of the changing cost of college involves weighing a number of factors:

In considering the impact of price increases, it is accumulated patterns, not one-year changes, that determine current charges. Relatively low prices may rise rapidly in percentage terms without causing significant difficulties, while even freezing high prices does not put them within reach of the typical student. Current prices and dollar increases, not percentage increases, best measure the impact on students and families.

In other words, though the net cost of college has decreased slightly, that price drop hasn’t happened in a vacuum.  It’s happened in the midst of an economic crisis that is stretching students and their families to the limit.

Last fall, we covered the rising cost of college in a 2-part report for The NewsHour, investigating both the challenges of paying for a bachelor’s degree and the underlying reasons behind the upward trend in pricing.

While producing that report we heard from students, over and over, that the cost of college and the crippling debt that many times ensued is worth it, because alternative routes to solid careers have disappeared.  One senior told told us, “I think that it becomes a sort of standard practice to just accept the fact that, if you want to get what you want out of life, you’re going to have to be in debt.” And if students will pay, there’s not much incentive for colleges to stop increasing tuition and fees.

I invite you to revisit the segments, and share your thoughts…

Paying for College, Drowning in Debt [Learning Matters for The NewsHour, aired 12/08/08]

The Costs for Colleges [Learning Matters for The NewsHour, aired 12/09/08]

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