The soaring college prices and heavy borrowing that became commonplace during the recession is coming to an end, the College Board said Wednesday, as increases in tuition and fees continue to slow down.
Sticker prices for the 2015-2016 academic year crept up about 3 percent, much like the past two years.
Published tuition and fees for four-year public colleges and universities this fall average $9,410 for in-state students, a 2.9 percent annual increase after inflation. By comparison, public colleges saw a 9.5 percent increase in prices for the 2009-2010 academic year, the height of the economic downturn, according to the report.
When grants, scholarships and tax credits are taken into account, tuition and fees for local students at public universities average about $4,000. But that so-called net price climbs to an average $14,120 when room and board are added. Because grant aid and tax benefits per student have leveled off, while sticker prices continue to climb, net prices shot up between 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, according to the report.
At private nonprofit colleges, average net tuition and fees this fall was $14,890, up from an inflation-adjusted $13,430 the prior year. Including room and board, the net price rose from $24,490 to $26,400. Published tuition and fees at private schools crept up 3.6 percent, to $32,405 after inflation.
Though the rate of price increases has moderated in recent years, students who enrolled in four-year state schools this year still paid three times more than they would have in 1985. And with incomes declining during the past decade for all but the highest-earning families, even modest tuition increases can feel like tremendous burdens.
Median family income declined at an average rate of 0.2 percent a year after inflation between 2005 and 2014, while incomes rose 0.8 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to the report.
“Nobody is really better off than they were a decade ago,” said Sandy Baum, a scholar at George Washington University who co-authored two new College Board reports on tuition and financial aid. “It’s not just that low-income families are having trouble paying for college, but families at the top, even though they are better off, still are feeling the pinch because they haven’t seen their real incomes rising.”
Families, nevertheless, are taking on less debt to pay for college. Students and parents borrowed $106 billion in 2014-2015 to pay for college, down 6 percent from the previous year and down 14 percent from the peak of $124 billion in 2010-2011. The decline in borrowing has been most pronounced among undergraduates, with a 20 percent drop between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015. Graduate students have upped their borrowing by 2 percent, or $200 million, during the same time.
Borrowing is declining in part because enrollment is slipping, while grant aid has remained fairly steady, Baum said. An earlier report from Sallie Mae also showed that an increasing number of parents are using more of their earnings and savings to pay for college. Parental out-of-pocket contributions accounted for 32 percent of the total funding used to pay for college in 2014, surpassing scholarships and grants for the first time in five years, according to that survey.
The starkest changes in college costs over time has been at four-year public colleges and universities. Even with grants and tax credits, students at those schools pay 38 percent more than a decade ago, while students at private schools have only seen net prices rise 1 percent during the same time.
State general fund budgets were rocked during the 2008 recession, and legislatures responded by slashing higher education funding by 23 percent per student, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. Universities raised tuition to make up for the funding shortfall. Even though many states have restored funding, few are providing as much as they did before the financial markets crashed.
“In years when funding per student either declines or rises more slowly, you have more rapid increases in tuition and fees,” Baum said. “As appropriations for higher education have recovered, tuition increases have declined, so there is obviously a correlation.”
The report also looked at tuition and fees at flagship state universities. The highest sticker prices for in-state students are $17,514 at Penn State University Park and $16,986 at the University of New Hampshire. The lowest are $4,891 at the University of Wyoming and $6,158 at the University of Montana. In the Washington area, prices are $9,996 at the University of Maryland in College Park and $14,468 at the University of Virginia for local residents.
Among the nation’s large state schools, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has the highest sticker price in tuition and fees for out-of-state students, at $43,476, followed by U-Va., at $43,082.
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