The ever-increasing cost of higher education
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The ever-increasing price of higher education seems almost as certain as death and taxes.
In the College Board's most recent report on undergraduate college pricing from last fall, published tuition and fees -- known as the sticker price -- continued to rise in 2012-13 across all sectors.
The study, Trends in College Pricing, showed tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities grew 4.8 percent, or $399, the smallest increase since 2000-01.
Private nonprofit four-year institution tuition and fees were up 4.2 percent or $1,173 on average in 2012-13 over the prior year.
Public two-year colleges saw an average increase of 5.8 percent or $172.
For-profit schools experienced a 3 percent or $435 increase.
The goal is to find a school that fits both academically and financially.
"People have always have had to trade off perceived quality and affordability," said Mark Kantrowitz of Cranberry, publisher of FastWeb.com and FinAid.org. "College is becoming less and less affordable compared to families' incomes, so students have to make a decision between financial and academic fit."
Though many students pay less than the published price because of financial aid, what they and their families are paying out of pocket for tuition and fees -- the net price -- also has been going up, though not quite as quickly as the published price has.
Over the last five years, for full-time students at public four-year colleges and universities, the published price has grown by 27 percent, while the net price has increased 17 percent.
This has resulted in the average published tuition and fees at public four-year schools running $8,655 while the net price is $2,900, thanks to grants and tax credits and deductions.
In Pennsylvania, the average published tuition and fees for public four-year universities increased from $9,978 in 2004-05 to $12,330 in 2012-13, the College Board reported.
As to why prices have been going up at public colleges and universities, Jennifer Ma, an independent policy analyst for the College Board, said parents and students are paying a larger portion because state appropriations have not been increasing.
For private universities, she said the increasing costs of fringe benefits, including health insurance, have contributed to higher costs for students and parents.
To make a public college education affordable, state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said a balance must be met among universities appropriately spending funds; students paying what they can; and the state contributing what it can afford, he said.
Mr. Costa is an ex-officio member of the state Senate Appropriations Committee and serves on the board of trustees of Community College of Allegheny County.
If funding remains flat, tuition will increase, and instructors and programs will likely be cut, he said.
The solution to the ever-increasing cost of college "is not going to be easy," Ms. Ma said.
"I think ultimately colleges and universities need to find ways to do things more efficiently," she said. "Other sectors of the economy have been doing things more efficiently, at lower costs, but colleges and universities are not doing that, and they need to figure out a way to do that."
U.S. News and World Report took a look in December at how efficiently colleges operate by comparing the schools' educational quality -- as measured by their rankings -- with the amount of money spent.
"The less a school is spending relative to its ranking, the more efficient it is in producing a quality education among its peers," the survey said.
Duquesne University was named one of the 20 most efficiently operated national universities based on its U.S. News ranking of 120th among national universities and its spending during fiscal 2011.
What any particular student will pay for higher education depends both on the type of institution and the student.
In Pennsylvania, the published price of a community college runs much less than a four-year state-owned public university which is less than a four-year state-related university which is less than a four-year private university.
The same student may be offered dramatically different financial aid packages at various schools, depending on need, merit and the school's policies, making it important to shop around.
"People should know there are options out there, and they should explore different types of institutions," Ms. Ma said. "College is a good investment."
Carlow University senior Rebekah Stern knows well that the cost of her education is rising, but she said it's not something she considers much because she views a college degree as a necessity.
"The most important thing is that students need to get as much out of it as possible," Ms. Stern, 21, said.
She said utilizing resources at her university -- such as tutors and travel opportunities -- put her money to work.
The Penn Township native has traveled across the U.S. and to Ireland for service and leadership trips, and she said in many cases she didn't have to pay any out-of-pocket expenses.
"If you're really passive, you don't get ... the opportunity to travel and participate in different leadership activities, which boost your resume," she said.
Ms. Ma believes the benefits of a college degree still outweigh the costs.
On average, college graduates earn more and have greater access to health insurance and pension benefits, Ms. Ma said.
"In 2011, the $100,096 median income for families headed by a four-year college graduate was more than twice the median income for families headed by a high school graduate," the College Board report noted.
A college degree pays for itself, on average, within 10 years, Ms. Ma said, as graduates will have made up for the time lost in the work force while they were students, as well as for the cost of student loans.
"I think it would take a lot of increases in tuition and fees to say that it's not worth it," she said.
First Published February 14, 2013 12:00 am