A new survey says Pennsylvania is no longer the most costly state for public college prices, having dropped to fifth nationwide among four-year campuses and fourth among two-year schools.
The College Board's annual pricing report says public tuition and fees paid by Pennsylvanians -- $9,041 at four-year schools and $4,299 at two-year colleges -- remain thousands of dollars above the national average.
Even so, the average four-year price for 2006-2007 is less than what's charged in Vermont, at $9,800; Ohio, at $9,357; New Jersey, at $9,298; and New Hampshire, at $9,114. Two-year prices in this state are outpaced by those in Vermont, at $5,230; New Hampshire, at $5,207; and Minnesota, at $4,300.
Costs at private four-year campuses in Pennsylvania average $25,591, putting them 10th among states in terms of cost, compared with a sixth-highest rank last year.
Across the nation, college costs continue to outpace inflation, though increases this fall slowed for the third consecutive year on public campuses, the College Board reported at a news conference in Washington, D.C. There is more student aid available, but grants have not kept pace with campus prices, and officials said minorities and the poor remain especially hard-pressed.
"Though student aid makes it possible for many students from low- and middle-income families to afford college, we still face inequality in access to higher education across ethnic, racial and economic lines," said College Board President Gaston Caperton.
In discussing Pennsylvania's new standing, Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst for the College Board and co-author of its "Trends in College Pricing" report, cautioned against placing too much importance in the ranking shift. It is the second time the College Board survey has reported prices by state, and fluctuations will likely occur each year, she said.
"What matters is what happens over the long term," said Dr. Baum, a professor of economics at Skidmore College. "What matters is how much it costs for Pennsylvania students to go to college, not whether the state has moved ahead or behind a few other states."
Maria Feki, a Penn State University main campus senior, sounded less impressed by the lower ranking yesterday than by the fact her campus charges more than $9,000 a year.
"I don't like the fact that tuition goes up every single year," said Ms. Feki, 22.
Nevertheless, Pennsylvania's lower rank offered a rare bit of encouragement to leaders here who often are accused of doing less than officials in other states to curb costs.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Kate Philips, spokeswoman for Gov. Ed Rendell, noting efforts by her boss to limit campus price increases.
Pennsylvania's public campuses have gotten more generous state appropriations of late, including a nearly 5 percent increase this year. Dr. Baum said that likely played a role.
Because the College Board survey is weighted by enrollment, Pennsylvania's rank also benefited from rising student population across the 14 universities belonging to the State System of Higher Education. Those schools are the state's least expensive four-year campuses, and this year's tuition increase, at 2.7 percent, was kept close to the inflation rate.
"Our growth and our efforts to control costs are obviously having an effect," said Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the system with 109,000 students.
Larger tuition increases of nearly 6 percent were imposed on the main campuses of Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh. But even those were smaller than double-digit hikes of a few years back that had helped propel Pennsylvania to the top in price.
Nationwide, the College Board found that published prices at four-year public campuses averaged $5,836 for the 2006-2007 academic year, an increase of 6 percent or $344 over last year. Two-year public campuses saw average prices of $2,272, an increase of $90 or 4 percent from last year.
Published prices at the nation's private four-year campuses average $22,218, up by 6 percent or $1,238 from last year.
The four-year public campus increase, when adjusted for inflation, is the lowest in six years, officials said. Nevertheless, said the College Board, that average price is 35 percent greater than five years ago.
Total student aid from government, colleges and other sources increased by 3.7 percent and now totals $134.8 billion. The assistance means that students actually pay many thousands of dollars less than the published price, the College Board said.
For instance, full-time students attending four-year public colleges pay on average about $2,700 in net tuition and fees after grant aid and tax benefits, the College Board said. Full-time students attending four-year private campuses pay roughly $13,200.
However, the board also noted a decline in purchasing power in federal aid. The average Pell Grant, even without inflation, declined per recipient last year by $120.
At the news conference, James Moeser, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, outlined his school's push to significantly expand access for low-income students but also noted how pressure to compete drives up prices.
He said he could immediately cut costs by increasing class sizes and forgoing sought-after faculty, but "obviously I would be driving down quality."
James A. Boyle, president of the Virginia-based College Parents of America, said in response to the College Board report that his membership organization is troubled by the continued cost escalation.
"The sticker price to attend college continues to go up at a much faster rate than the Consumer Price Index, and that is of great concern -- and bewilderment -- to parents across the country," he said. "Unfortunately, schools continue to raise their sticker prices because they can."
Bill Schackner can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1977.