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Recession drives up college tuition nationwide

Four-year public colleges in the U.S. raised annual costs by an average 6.5%; private institutions saw a 4.4% climb.

October 21, 2009|Larry Gordon

The recession helped push up the cost of college this year, with students facing bigger bills because of reduced state spending on higher education and diminished campus endowments, according to a College Board report released Tuesday.

Tackling severe budget problems, four-year public colleges in the U.S. raised annual tuition and fees by an average 6.5%, to $7,020 this fall, the board found in its annual survey. That figure does not include room, board and other expenses.

Private colleges saw the value of their investments drop in the same period but were worried about pricing out recession-battered families, officials said. So tuition climbed a more modest 4.4% at four-year private schools this year, bringing the average to $26,273.

The increases came at a time when the consumer price index declined about 2%, prompting some criticism about higher education's inability to control spending. In contrast, for the school year that began in fall 2008, the increases in college costs at four-year schools were about the same as annual inflation.

However, officials urged students not to be scared away from enrolling. About two-thirds of all college students receive grant aid, and on average, such aid reduces tuition bills by more than half, according to the College Board study. Federal tax credits can cut the costs even more.

Sandy Baum, a College Board senior policy analyst, urged families to apply for as much grant aid as possible before borrowing, and then to seek lower-interest federal student loans before tapping private ones. "There is a lot of student aid that can help make this expense more manageable," she said at a news conference Tuesday.

The survey showed that 65% of 2007-08 bachelor's degree recipients graduated with student loan debt, with the median burden $20,000. Baum said she was "concerned about the growing number of students who are borrowing an extraordinary amount of money."

Patrick M. Callan, president of the San Jose-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said it was "hugely disappointing" that colleges continued to raise fees during the recession, even as other sectors of the economy have been freezing costs. That shows "an inability or unwillingness to deal with becoming more cost-effective and increasing productivity," said Callan.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said the survey results were no surprise. "No sector is immune to the current economic downturn and that includes our nation's postsecondary institutions," she said. "Every major revenue source for colleges and universities has been under stress."

California's public universities raised student fees this fall by percentages well beyond the national averages.

The 23-campus Cal State system increased its fees by about a third, to $4,026 for in-state undergraduates, not including room, board and campus charges. That still remained below the national average of $6,094 for public institutions granting master's degrees.

The 10-campus University of California raised its basic undergraduate fees for this fall by 9.3%, to about $8,720 for California residents, not including living expenses. The national average for similar public doctorate-granting universities was $7,797, the report said. But UC also is proposing another increase that would put basic fees above $10,000 by next fall.


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