Seeing Past the Sticker Price ; Step Right Up for Some Higher Education about the Real Cost of College

By David R. Francis , writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 18, 2000 | Go to article overview

Seeing Past the Sticker Price ; Step Right Up for Some Higher Education about the Real Cost of College


David R. Francis , writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Stanford University's Martin Anderson proclaims an end to the sharp annual rise in the cost of college and university.

"The terrible crisis has gone away," says the economics professor.

His assertion will raise an eyebrow among parents of college students. Many are struggling to pay tuition and living costs. At the top private schools, these can exceed $30,000 a year.

Nor do all experts on college costs fully agree with Mr. Anderson.

"There has been a slight moderation in tuition increases," says Lawrence Gladieux, policy analysis director at The College Board, a New York body that takes an annual look at college costs.

Anderson, however, was looking at the average net cost of college - after financial aid is deducted from the "sticker price," the listed costs of tuition. There is no quarrel among the experts that college tuition soared in the 1980s and early 1990s. Between 1976 and 1996, the average annual tuition at public universities increased from $642 to $3,151. At private universities, it rose from $2,881 to $15,581.

And at public two-year colleges, the least expensive of the 3,700 not-for-profit higher education institutions in the United States, tuition rose from $245 to $1,245.

Those increases were far faster than inflation and much greater than the rise in family incomes.

Reflecting the alarm of parents, hard-pressed to provide their children the education necessary to achieve at least a middle-class living standard, Congress appointed a National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education.

The 11-member group reported in January 1998. To Anderson, one of the 11 members, the commission's basic conclusion was that the earlier dramatic increases in real college costs had "flattened out and gone away."

At four-year private schools, the commission's measure of affordability - that is the total price minus grants and scholarships - only increased by 4 percent between 1993 and 1996. Total price minus grants plus loans declined slightly, by 7 percent. A similar story applied to public four-year institutions.

Since then, this pattern appears to have been maintained.

Tuition and fees at four-year private institutions were up 4.6 percent last year to $15,380 on average; at their public four-year counterparts, up 3.4 percent to $3,356; and at two-year public institutions, up 4.7 percent to $1,627. These are the smallest price rises in 12 years, the College Board says.

"The increases in college costs have abated," says Gregory Fusco, director of a project on college costs at the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Nonetheless, he's concerned that many parents and students believe college is unaffordable, despite the grants and loans available to qualified students.

Mr. Gladieux charges that the commission's research on net college costs was "shaky" because of insufficient information from colleges and universities on grants, loans, and other offsetting aid.

Anderson admits that college-cost data provided by the US Department of Education is "indecipherable." The commission, he says, spent $100,000 to massage the data to come up with its relatively cheerful conclusion on costs.

"It's impossible to tell what is really going on," he says. "Colleges don't put out the numbers. Universities are tricky places."

One recommendation of the commission was that colleges be more "transparent" in their statistics on costs and student aid. …

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