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American Students Are Paying More Than Ever For College (Again)

Over the past five years, the average published price at a four-year university has increased by 27 percent.

We've all heard the saying that the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. Well, here's another truism: Every year the cost of college goes up. Over the past five years, the average published price at a four-year university has increased by 27 percent. According to the College Board's annual Trends in College Pricing report, costs at these "institutions rose more rapidly between 2002-03 and 2012-13 than over either of the two preceding decades."

It's not that schools are trying to gouge students. Instead, the report notes that revenue shortages—think of all the reports you hear of state budget cuts to higher education—instead of wild spending on campus are behind the rapid rise in public college prices. And yes, prices are up again for the 2012-2013 school year, too. The average published tuition and fees for in-state students attending four-year public colleges and universities jumped 4.8 percent—increasing an average of $399 dollars to $8,655 in 2012?2012, and the costs of room and board rose 3.7 percent—up $399 dollars to $9,205. Combined with the cost of books, supplies, and other expenses the sticker price to attend an in-state public college is up 3.8 percent to a new record $22,261.

Even though the price is at a record high—which is certainly cause for concern—the good news is that's not what most students are paying. The net price, the "average price paid by all full-time students—including those who do and do? not receive student aid—after subtracting grant aid from all sources in addition to federal tax credits and deductions," is the number we should pay attention to. The College Board estimates, for example, that the average public university student is paying only $2,900 per year in tuition, $5,755 less than the sticker price.

That doesn't sound as bad as the sticker price, but it turns out the average net price is growing too—it increased by 17 percent over the past five years. With financial aid budgets remaining flat, students are now expected to foot more of the bill for their education. Since "real average family incomes in 2011 were lower than they were a decade earlier" and "the largest declines were for the families in the lowest 20 percent of the population," plenty of families probably don't have extra cash on hand to pay for college. At a time when we need more students going to college than ever, increases in net price could produce the opposite result.

To keep college affordable, schools have to do their part by working to "develop lower-cost methods of delivering college courses." But the College Board also recommends that states step up and prioritize funding for higher education. If that happens, we could start to see an entirely different set of headlines about higher education. "College Costs Down For Fifth Year in a Row"—would certainly be nice to write.

Man counts his coins photo via Shutterstock

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