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Tuition at public colleges has soared in the past decade, but student fees have risen faster

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A new study shows that the fees public colleges and universities charge students to use campus facilities and cover operation costs have actually risen faster than tuition.

Using Department of Education data, Seton Hall University professor Robert Kelchen found that inflation-adjusted fees grew faster than tuition at state schools between the 1999-2000 and 2012-2013 academic years. During that time, fees at community colleges soared 104 percent, while tuition climbed by 50 percent. Fees at four-year public colleges skyrocketed 95 percent over that period, eclipsing the 66 percent hike in tuition at the same time.

Public colleges and universities have ratcheted up tuition to offset a retreat in state higher education funding, especially after the 2008 economic recession placed pressure on state budgets. The downturn gave way to the highest increases in tuition and fees, with tuition climbing 5 percent above inflation and fees increasing 7 percent in the 2009-2010 school year alone. As the economic recovery got under way, the pace of growth slowed to about 3 percent in 2012-2013, but by that time the average fees were $1,719 at four-year institutions and $467 at public community colleges.

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Although tuition accounts for a hefty portion of the cost of college, fees add on over 20 percent to the price of tuition at the average four-year public university, Kelchen said. The median fee was nearly $1,300 for full-time students at those schools in 2012-2013. However, schools in five states, including Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut, charged an average institutional fee of more than $2,500, with Massachusetts charging the highest average fee of $8,280. At the low end of the scale, public colleges in Hawaii, Kentucky and Michigan all charged less than $500 per year in fees, with Mississippi schools asking for the lowest average fee of $238.

Kelchen said the only significant institution-level factor in fee increases was tuition. As colleges increased tuition, fees came down. Conversely, as states instituted tuition caps, colleges raised fees. Kelchen found that colleges in states with tuition caps have fees that are $59 higher than schools in states without such caps. Schools, he said, are increasingly using fees to subsidize library services, information technology and other core priorities that used to be included in the price of tuition. Public colleges are in some cases imposing fees to make up for the loss of state appropriations.

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States began dialing back their contributions to higher education decades ago, but the collapse of the financial markets in 2008 caused a precipitous decline. Legislatures slashed higher education funding by 23 percent per student during that time, leading public universities to raise the sticker price by an average 28 percent above the rate of inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. And while the average state support per student increased 5.2 percent to $6,966 in the fiscal year ending June 2015, researchers at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association say that level of support is still 15.3 percent below the $8,221 per student before the recession.

College price increases have slowed in recent years, but the amount of money families are expected to pay remains high. A year at a four-year public university, including tuition, fees, and room and board, cost an average $14,120 for a full-time, in-state student in 2015-2016 — and that’s after taking grants, scholarships and tax credits into account, according to the College Board. At private nonprofit colleges, the average net price is almost double, at $26,400. Fees may seem like a small slice of the pie, but for a family struggling to cover expenses, every dollar matters.

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