Hold on to your wallets - college costs are going up faster than inflation. Again. But there's some good news, too.
Tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities (excluding room and board) rose an average of 3.4 percent nationwide - the lowest rate of increase in four years. At four-year private schools, the rise was 4.6 percent - the smallest jump in 27 years.
That lower rate of increase is a "very positive trend for American families," says Gaston Caperton, the College Board's president. "There has been a great deal of focus on the price of a college education and too little focus on its value."
The New-York-based College Board, a nonprofit company whose annual college-tuition tally was released last week, is touting the fact that costs aren't escalating as quickly as in the past.
Smaller cost increases are better than big cost increases, of course. But not everyone is sanguine. "It's still double the rate of inflation and there's no assurance those trends will continue in that direction, given the historical patterns," says Arthur Hauptman, an education policy consultant in Alexandria, Va.
While states like California, Virginia, and Massachusetts have cut or frozen tuition, other states have not. And when the economy cools, legislatures may well trim higher-ed budgets again - resulting in tuition increases at public institutions.
Jamie Pueschel, legislative director of the Washington-based United States Student Association, representing 3.5 million students on 350 member campuses, says she welcomes the news of moderating tuitions.
"I'm glad to see it," she says. "But these lower increases are still higher than inflation and come just as the government is cutting grant aid to students. So students are still going to have to take out more loans."
She points out that the annual cost of attending a four-year private institution will still be on average $15,380 - or $671 more than a year ago. On average, students at four-year public schools will pay tuition and fees of $3,247, or $109 more than last year.
That means already mountainous student-debt burdens, which average close to $14,000 today, will climb, says Ms. Pueschel. In fact, the College Board released another study on financial aid last week showing that student aid hit a record $64 billion. Fifty-eight percent of that aid was in the form of loans - compared with 40 percent in 1980.
Behind the relatively mild upswing in tuitions this year are a number of unusual factors. "Budget reengineering" and agreements to share campus facilities have actually helped lower tuitions at a number of independent college and university campuses, according to the national Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
At tiny Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska, tuition was cut 42 percent in 1998-99, helping new-student enrollment surge 110 percent the next year. "For some of those students, there's no question the tuition reduction was a factor," says John Schafer, dean of enrollment at Sheldon Jackson. "They may have been on the fence financially and wanted to come here, but needed a little extra convincing."
Likewise, Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, cut its tuition by $4,650 for first-year students in 1996-97 and saw its enrollment jump by more than 40 percent in each of the past two years.
And in a bid to attract more middle-class students, Marlboro College, a small liberal-arts college in Marlboro, Vt., chopped its tuition this year by 8 percent to $18,800 from $20,300 a year earlier.
"I have heard testimony from students and families that confirms for me the near-crisis proportions of the problem [of tuition fees]," says Paul LeBlanc, Marlboro's president. "Marlboro, like most small liberal-arts colleges, doesn't have a large endowment to use in response to the problem. We have to respond in other ways."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society