Spikes in College Price Tags Not So Sharp

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Amid partisan finger-pointing over soaring college costs, a national report offered some good news yesterday: Average tuition and fees are not rising as fast as they did a few years ago.

The College Board said the increase in tuition and fees at public four-year colleges, although still higher than the national inflation rate, slowed for the third year in a row. Increases at private four-year colleges have also cooled off in recent years, although the average yearly price of attending a private college is $22,218, far more than the state school average of $5,836.

At least two Washington area institutions are emblematic of the trend. At the University of Maryland, in-state tuition and fees for undergraduates were unchanged this year. At George Washington University, the increase was only 3.9 percent, about equal to national inflation. GW spokeswoman Tracy Schario said it was "our lowest increase in more than two decades."

But the smaller increases this year at many colleges were made possible by major price increases earlier in the decade. Middle-class parents have discovered, to the pain of their wallets, that the general inflation rate and the college inflation rate are out of sync. Overall, the College Board reported, state school prices are up 35 percent from five years ago, even after adjusting for inflation.

This year, average tuition and fees increased 6.3 percent at four-year public colleges and 5.9 percent at four-year private colleges. The annual price for two-year public colleges went up 4.1 percent, to $2,272. The College Board said the national inflation rate for the same period was 3.82 percent.

At the University of Virginia, in-state tuition and fees rose 9.1 percent, to $8,035, and at George Mason University, those costs went up 9 percent, to $6,408. American University's tuition and fees rose 5.7 percent, to $29,673, and Georgetown University's tuition and fees increased about 6 percent.

Kalman A. Chany, author of the Princeton Review book "Paying for College Without Going Broke," said the data show that it remains difficult for families to pay for college, even if this year's increases were not so bad. He said parents and students should consider seeking scholarships and subsidized loans to make sure they do everything possible "to minimize the sticker price."

Leaders of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce gave dueling interpretations of the College Board data. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, blamed colleges for raising prices whenever Congress increases student aid. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the committee's ranking member, said Congress should cut college loan interest rates and increase the value of federal Pell Grants for low-income students.

In some states this year, political candidates have accused state officials of letting tuition get too high -- a charge that Democratic gubernatorial challenger and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has hurled at Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The College Board report says that federal grant aid did not keep up with inflation but that total student aid increased 3.7 percent last year even after inflation. Even without factoring in inflation, the report says, the average federal Pell Grant for low-income students fell by $120 per participant.

James A. Boyle, president of the College Parents of America, said: "Unfortunately, schools continue to raise their sticker prices because they can. The demand of college-bound students currently exceeds the supply, as the bulge of the baby boom echo makes its way through American high schools and competes to claim the relatively fixed number of available college seats."

Boyle said that in the next decade, demand will slacken and colleges will have to compete on price. "That is of little comfort to families today, however, whose budgets and levels of patience are being stretched to the breaking point," he said.

The College Board report indicates that few students pay full price for college. On average, full-time students at private four-year institutions receive about $9,000 in aid each year in the form of grants and tax benefits. The aid is about $3,100 a year at public four-year schools and $2,200 at public two-year colleges.

Chany said the College Board data show that families should look out for the possibility that some well-regarded private colleges would cost no more than similarly prestigious out-of-state public universities when all the costs are figured in.

"Average out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges are 71 percent of average private four-year tuition and fees," the report says. "But adding room and board, the cost of a year for an out-of-state student at a public four-year college is 77 percent of the average tuition, fees, room and board at a private four-year college." Chany said students with good but not great grades in high school might also find more aid available at private than at public schools.

College Inflation
This chart shows the growth of private and public college costs in five-year intervals, as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars.
This chart shows the growth of private and public college costs in five-year intervals, as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars.
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