The cost of attending a public university in America has risen by more than triple the rate of inflation, driving a 43 per cent rise in one year in the number of students borrowing from private lenders.
The figures were released as the US presidential election was drawing to a close. Senator John Kerry immediately pointed out that since President George W. Bush has been in office, average public university tuition fees have increased 35 per cent, or $1,207 (£660). Public university tuition was up 10.5 per cent over the past year, while private university tuition costs rose by 6 per cent.
The average cost of tuition and fees at public universities was $5,132 a year. At private universities, it was $20,082. Most US students attend public universities.
Yet the American Council on Education, one of the foremost US associations of universities, called this "a welcome development for students and families around the country". It insisted that the increase showed a "moderation" over previous years. Last year, public university tuition costs rose by about 13 per cent. The council said "a record" $122 billion in financial aid was available for US university students. But this aid continues to shift to the form of loans, not grants, and what grants do exist tend to be given to students with great potential rather than to those who need them for financial reasons.
Critics say that this is a strategy by universities to increase their standings in the US News & World Report annual university and college rankings.
The annual report on tuition costs released by the College Board shows that grant aid increased 6 per cent last year. The volume of federal government loans was up 13 per cent.
University officials blamed the rise in fees on cuts in government aid, low returns on endowment investment, falling philanthropic support and increasing costs of healthcare and libraries.
Given these difficulties, the National Association of Independent Colleges said it should be applauded for keeping the tuition cost increase "consistent with the average over the past ten years".