Fees rise too fast for family pockets

October 10, 1997

The cost of attending college in the United States rose by 5 per cent this autumn, above the rate of inflation and family income for the 12th year running.

The latest figures in the annual survey by the College Board forced institutions once again to justify their fees and provoked signs of a backlash from students, parents and politicians.

They fit a long-term pattern of fees rising at double or more the rate of real incomes. One result has been a greater debt burden on students and their families.

College spokesmen said the figures showed fee rises were under control and nearing the level of inflation. Earlier this decade, they were in double figures.

Donald Stewart, president of the College Board, said: "For most Americans college is still accessible, especially in the light of financial aid available."

There was veiled talk earlier this year when Congress passed an education budget with new student grants and tax breaks for their families of penalising colleges that pushed up costs too fast.

College prices have risen 234 per cent in the past 15 years while household incomes have increased 82 per cent and the consumer price index by 74 per cent.

Average tuition at private four-year institutions rose to more than $13,000 a year in 1997/98, the board found. Once room and board are factored in, it now costs on average more than $80,000 to send a student to a top-ranking private college. Four-year public institutions, such as state universities, charge fees of $3,100, but room and board pushes that figure to about $10,000 a year. Mr Stewart pointed out that more than half of all undergraduates are paying yearly fees of less than $4,000 a year.

Colleges blame staff pay and computerisation for the rises. "Headlines that scream about the inflation of tuition and fees only serve to inflate the fears of American families," Mr Stewart said. "The US continues to extend higher education opportunities to a larger per cent of the population than any other country."

But sceptical economists say it is a matter of supply and demand. With studies showing convincingly that bachelors and masters degrees are a critical entree to a well-paid career, colleges see almost bottomless demand.

The board reported that student aid was at a record $55 billion this year, with most in loans not grants, up from $32 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars a decade earlier.

Universities argue that the value of higher education is increasing as fast as college costs. Ten years ago, someone with a bachelor's degree recipient could expect to earn about 50 per cent more than a high school graduate. The income advantage has since doubled.

While students and their families are paying more, the proportion of the money being spent on instruction, libraries and maintenance is shrinking, along with the length of the academic calendar.

Parents have formed their own association, College Parents of America, which hopes to have 20,000 members by January. Richard Flaherty, director of the five-month-old association, said: "We intend to take a close look at rising costs, university by university, college by college, to ensure that for every dollar invested there's a dollar return on their investment for the college parent."

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