The real cost of college is flattening as schools give more scholarships

While tuition costs keep rising, schools offer more aid to attract shrinking pool of students.

  • By Douglas Belkin,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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After increasing for decades, the real cost of attending both public and private college is flat and in some cases even declined this year, as colleges compete for fewer students by giving away more scholarships.

If that sounds counterintuitive, it is because the sticker price for higher education continues to inch up even though fewer students actually pay it, according to an annual pricing-trends report by the College Board, a New York nonprofit that administers the SAT and tracks university costs.

“The trends in college financing have changed in recent years,” Sandy Baum, co-author of the 2018 Trends in Higher Education report, said in a statement. Tuition rose rapidly during the four academic years between fall 2007 and spring 2011, “particularly at public colleges and universities,” Ms. Baum said. “Federal expenditures on student aid increased dramatically, helping a growing student population to finance their education. At the same time, students borrowed more and more.”

But since 2010-11, she said, “all of these trends have reversed.”

The average net cost of a year at a four-year public college or university, including tuition, fees, room and board, fell to $14,880 in 2018–19, down slightly from $14,910 in 2017–18 and just $90 more than in 2016-17. By comparison, between 2008-09 and 2015-16 the net cost increased 25%, or $2,840, in inflation adjusted dollars, according to the report.

The net price for four-year private schools was $27,290, up 0.5% from $27,160 last year. Those figures are based on 2018-19 tuition rates but prior-year financial-aid figures, and will be revised once financial-aid and tax data are released for the current school year.

Net costs are flattening or falling thanks to a rise in grants—student aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. Grants and tax benefits at private schools climbed to $21,220 on average this year, up from $13,860 in 2008 (adjusted to 2018 dollars). At public institutions they rose to $6,490 this year from $4,970 in 2008.

“These grants are one way for private institutions to offer more aid to low-income students,” said Jennifer Ma, co-author of the report. “Schools charge full-pay students more money but give lower-income students more aid as a result.”

Higher grants from schools allowed undergraduates to borrow less from the federal student-loan program; such borrowing declined to an average $4,520 per student in 2017-18 from $5,830 in 2010-11 (in 2017 dollars), according to the report. Federal loans for graduate students ticked up to $17,990 in 2017-18 from an average of $17,340 in 2014-15.

Public funding for colleges in many states has risen since funding cuts made during and immediately after the recession. Private colleges, meanwhile, are increasing financial aid as they compete harder to attract students from a diminishing pool of high-school graduates. This demographic drop is expected to accelerate, as falling U.S. fertility rates lead to shrinking numbers of college-ready children for most of the next two decades.

Schools’ diminishing pricing power is causing tremendous stress among many less-prestigious schools as their enrollments decline. In July, Moody’s Investors Service said that private-college closures rose to about 11 a year, roughly double the rate in 2015. Moody’s predicts annual closures will continue to rise to an average of 15 in coming years.

Most vulnerable are about 750 small, private colleges that depend almost entirely on student tuition because they have small endowments, according to Moody’s. The median net revenue per student among these schools covered 53% of the cost of each student. In 2012, it covered about 65%. The result: about one in five small private colleges is in trouble.

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