Study: Colleges successfully leveling off tuition prices

Researchers encourage further progress in reducing cost

A trio of studies, two from the College Board and one released by The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), suggest that overall the cost of college is plateauing after decades of growth, but progress varies drastically by institution type and region.

Trends in average net price

One College Board study focused on trends in college pricing. Researchers found that the average net price (what students pay after financial aid has been distributed) at a four-year undergraduate public institution declined 3.8% from 2012-2013 to 2014-2015.  However, that comes after a nearly 50% increase in average net price from 2010-2011 to 2012-2013.

Private non-profit four-year schools continued a three-year trend of relatively steady average net prices Average net prices increased only about 2% from 2012-2013 to 2014-2015 to $12,360. That remains less than their all-time high in 2007 of $14,420. In contrast, the average net price of public-four year intuitions reached its high of $3,150 in 2012-2013, up strikingly from $2,540 in 2006-2007.

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Community colleges were a bright spot for students. Average net price for 2014-2015 is -$1,740, reflecting aid packages which typically exceed the cost of tuition and fees.

Trends in student loan debt

A second College Board study and a report from TICAS reached similar conclusions on student loan debt. Both found that, like average net price, the average level of student debt seems to have leveled off after years of growth. Student debt for those who earned bachelor's degrees in 2013 averaged approximately $28,400, essentially unchanged from the year before.  

The College Board found that total undergraduate borrowing has dropped 14% since 2011, to $71.4 billion last year. Lauren Asher, president of TICAS cautioned that although "it may be that families have more resources than they did a couple of years ago," and borrowing has slowed down, "affordability is no less a concern now than it was last year or the year before."

Still room to improve on cost

Much of the increase in net prices at public four-year institutions can be traced to declining state funding for higher education, which fell 23%  from 2007-2008 to 2013-2014.  Historically, when state funding declines, tuition increases.

Sandy Baum, co-author of the TICAS report, said the slowdown in cost growth has not altered the fundamental problem of rising costs. "College prices are still rising and rising faster than the average prices in the economy, but not rising at an accelerating rate," she says (Adams, Education Week, 11/13; Pérez-Peña, New York Times, 11/13; College Board, 11/13.)

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