Public College Tuition Rose 14% in '03, Survey Finds
By GREG WINTER
New York Times
October 22, 2003
The nation's public universities raised tuitions by 14 percent this year, the steepest increase in at least a quarter century, if not significantly longer, according to the latest annual survey by the College Board.
Tuition at community colleges across the country also rose 14 percent, the second largest increase since 1976, the earliest year for which the College Board reports data.
In both cases, the increases, which come out to 13 percent when adjusted for inflation, were largely driven by cuts in state spending on education, the College Board said.
Private universities raised tuitions by 6 percent, itself not an unusual increase in recent years. But after adjusting for inflation, 2003 was the third consecutive year that private universities raised tuitions by at least 5 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation.
The last time a series of comparable increases occurred was in the mid-1980's, when families were enjoying a much healthier economy than they are now.
As a result of the increases, tuitions reached an average of $19,710 at private colleges, $4,694 at public universities and $1,905 at community colleges, more than twice what these institutions cost 20 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation.
"There is no denying the bad news," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges. He added, "But percentage increases in tuition do not tell the entire story."
Indeed, financial aid in the form of grants and loans surpassed $105 billion this year, also a record, helping to defray much of the increases in tuition, the College Board said.
Grants did not keep pace with tuition increases at either public or private universities, but they did soften the impact, according to the survey. After taking scholarships into account, students ended up paying only $343 more at public universities last year than they did in 1992, with adjustments for inflation, although tuition officially went up by more than $1,100 in that period.
The mitigating role of scholarships also meant that students at private universities wound up paying $2,799 more in adjusted dollars last year than they did a decade earlier, despite a sticker price for private colleges that rose by nearly $5,300 during that time.
And because of the growth in grants, students at community colleges actually paid $591 less in adjusted dollars last year than they did in 1992, the survey found.
For the most part, tuition at public colleges rose so fast this year to compensate for the declining government support of state campuses, the College Board said. Although its report did not track state appropriations in the current fiscal year, a separate survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures this summer found that total state spending on higher education dropped 2.2 percent this year, with some states trimming their expenditures by 9 percent or more.
Even so, Republicans in the House took issue with the College Board report, saying it let universities "off the hook" by focusing on factors colleges could not control, rather than on their own mismanagement and unwillingness to cut costs.
"Hyperinflation in college costs has been pummeling parents and students for more than a decade, and the problem has not been a lack of spending by states or the federal government," said Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "Even when states were increasing their investment in higher education, college tuition was skyrocketing."
The College Board defended its methodology and conclusions, however, pointing to historical trends illustrating that public institutions tend to raise tuition when states scale back financial support.
"The facts speak for themselves," said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. "We don't change them whatsoever. No way are we going to fudge anything, or the report has no value."
Colleges have been particularly anxious over the release of the report this year, worried that it would be used to justify federal legislation to curb tuition increases. Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California, proposed such a bill last week.
While the increases in tuition were expected, other aspects of the report were not. One of its most surprising findings was the degree to which scholarships from universities themselves have shifted from low-income students to wealthier ones.
Among financial aid recipients, for example, students from families earning $83,000 or more typically received larger scholarships from both public and private universities than their counterparts from families earning less than $31,000.
Some of that disparity can be explained by the fact that higher-income students tend to go to more expensive universities, so their scholarships are often larger to cover the higher price.
But the discrepancy also illustrates an increased effort by universities to spend their financial aid money luring top prospects, the College Board said, regardless of their incomes.