College prices up again as states slash budgets

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Other slivers of what passes for good news: While several states had double-digit percentage increases, there were wide variations, and Connecticut and South Carolina held under 3 percent. Roughly half of students are enrolled in nonprofit colleges and attend institutions charging under $10,000, and fewer than 1 in 10 attend institutions listing prices over $36,000.

Meanwhile, both community colleges and private four-year colleges reported lower tuition inflation than public universities.

At nonprofit private four-year colleges, tuition and fees were up 4.5 percent to $28,500. Factoring in aid, the average total net cost, including room and board, was about $22,970 — lower than five years ago. At community colleges, where list prices rose 8.7 percent nationally to just under $3,000, net costs also are lower than five years ago, and aid generally covers the whole price.

Still, while net costs are important to note, they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t cover living costs, which for many students are a higher obstacle than tuition, especially if they can’t work as much while enrolled.

And the aid dollars that help lower the average net price don’t always go to the neediest students.

Colleges award merit scholarships. Federal Pell Grants do support the neediest, and spending on them has nearly doubled in the last two years to around $35 billion (9.1 million students got grants averaging $3,828).

But the latest College Board figures highlight a rapid recent increase in indirect government support through tuition and other tax credits, which have reached almost $15 billion. Around 12 million people are now taking advantage of tax benefits averaging more than $1,200. And while recent changes make low-income families better able to take advantage of those credits, a growing proportion of the benefit goes to families earning more than $100,000.

The tax credit program, dramatically expanded in 2009, “really changes the story of how the federal government subsidizes students,” said Sandy Baum, the economist who directs the College Board’s reports. The credit is “not so much a middle-income benefit as we’re used to thinking about it.”

Some states are not only cutting their appropriations but not even paying what they’ve promised. Illinois is late on payments worth $500 million to nine campuses this year.

The percentage increases in California, once widely considered to have the best-value public universities in the world, are so high in part because the base prices of past years were low. Prices there still aren’t high by national standards, but this year for the first time, California’s tuition and fee rates were above the national average. That in 2011 California’s public universities would be cost more than the national average would have been unimaginable to most experts a decade ago.

Mr. Hartle and others say this year’s sharp increases came despite the last chunks of stimulus dollars from Washington used to plug holes in education spending. Looking forward, state budgets remain broken, and there’s little indication Washington will come riding to the rescue.

“I’m not exactly sure where higher education in the United States is going,” he said, “but I have a feeling California is going to get there first.”

Also, on Tuesday, an Education Department official testified to a House subcommittee that personal details of as many as 5,000 college students were temporarily visible to other students on the departments’ direct loan website earlier this month.

The episode lasted six or seven minutes on Oct. 12 and happened during a reconfiguration of data on 11.5 million borrowers to improve website performance times, said James Runcie, the Education Department’s federal student aid chief operating officer. Students who logged on during that window saw other students’ personal details. Those who were exposed were notified and offered credit monitoring services. The department said it had no reason to believe any students’ information was misused.

Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report from Washington.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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