‘Real cost’ of college flattening but remains out of reach for many

The average net price of attending public four-year institutions—including tuition, fees, and room and board—fell slightly between 2017-18 and 2018-19, while the net price of a year at the average four-year private institution increased only slightly, according to new data from the College Board. The Wall Street Journal reports that while “the sticker price for higher education continues to inch up…fewer students actually pay it” now, as colleges increasingly award scholarships to vie for a shrinking pool of potential students.

“People still think that prices are rising really rapidly—and they’re not,” Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a co-author of the report, told Inside Higher Ed. She says student aid figures—which lag one year behind the tuition and fees data—are a crucial piece of the puzzle. Total aid for the average undergraduate increased by 1.2 percent between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years. The average federal loan, meanwhile, shrunk by 3.6 percent.

Some schools remain prohibitively expensive for many families

Yet, even with net prices falling at some schools, many families remain “priced out,” The Hechinger Report writes. For families earning between $30,000 and $48,000, the average net price of college has remained flat since the recession, while the cost of college has grown for families earning $30,000 or less. According to research by Institute for Higher Education Policy, the average high-income family paying for college needs to finance an amount equivalent to 15 percent of their annual earnings, while moderate- to low-income families paying for college need to finance, on average, an amount that exceeds 100 percent of what they earn in a year.

“It is completely infeasible to think that families can dedicate even half to three quarters of their income to put their kid through college,” Debbie Cochrane, vice president of The Institute for College Access and Success, told The Hechinger Report.

Low-income families unable to afford more-selective colleges may look instead at community college or other, less expensive institutions with fewer resources to support their success—compromises that may result in lower incomes upon graduation, if students graduate at all.

“How affordable a college is doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for a student,” Brendan Williams, director of knowledge at UAspire, a nonprofit that assists low-income students in finding pathways to higher education, told The Hechinger Report. “The cheapest option is not always the best option.”

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