Each October, the College Board issues a report entitled Trends in College Pricing.
Based on data gathered in late summer, this report aggregates tuition, fee and room & board prices from colleges and universities across the country, and places them in context to previous years.
The report issued last week in Washington confirms what all of you have undoubtedly noticed, that the cost of college continues to go up.
According to the College Board, the average total cost of a private, four-year college in the current academic year is now more than 29,100, a 5.7% increase over AY 2004-2005. The average total cost of a public, four-year university is going up too, with that figure topping $12,000 for the first time ever, a 6.6% increase over AY 2004-2005.
At the same time each year, the College Board has for several decades also issued a companion report, entitled Trends in Student Aid.
As you might suspect, this document attempts to track the flow of financial aid dollars, both grants and loans, as these funds are utilized by students and their parents to meet the rising cost of college. Unfortunately, the reports on these aid sources tend to lag behind the availability of pricing information, so there is always a bit of a disconnect, with real-time cost data and trailing aid data.
Nevertheless, the trend is unmistakable. College costs are going up dramatically, student aid dollars in the form of grants are not keeping pace, and families are increasingly turning to loans, both federal and private, to meet the cost of a higher education.
Perhaps realizing that to issue these companion reports each year means the release of some consistently depressing news, the College Board in October 2004 issued, for the first time, a third annual report, this one entitled Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society.
A high school teacher of mine once made a very wise observation about reports that contain a colon in the title. “If your report needs that punctuation mark, then you either don’t believe what you are claiming or, if you do, then you are trying a bit too hard to get the reader to believe it,” he said.
I think that the College Board does rightfully believe that education pays, and I notice that its report carefully examines “both monetary and non-monetary individual and social returns to the investment in higher education.”
Maybe that’s where the “trying a bit too hard” part comes in. Not only does the College Board attempt to document the higher earnings and tax payments associated with higher levels of educational attainment, it also examines issues such as differential voter participation rates and differences in health-related behavior patterns by level of education.
This is just a guess, but I would argue that one of the reasons why the College Board is turning to other non-economic indicators in justifying the cost of college is that a college degree itself is bound to grow far less important as an income differentiator in future years.
Right now, certainly, eligibility for jobs that pay more is far more available to someone with a college degree versus someone with a high school degree only. But for how long will that really be the case in any meaningful way? Won’t graduate school, particularly a professional school, be far more important, at least when it comes to money?
I am asking these rhetorical questions in order to get, in a roundabout way, to my point in the headline to this article. Yes, a higher education still does pay – literally – in the income-generating potential that it offers to your son or daughter. But that gap is dwindling, at the same time that the price for college continues to skyrocket.
There are, of course, many other individual and societal benefits to higher education beyond just one’s ability to make more money. But each family, in the end, has to judge how important those less tangible benefits are, and budget their college investment accordingly.
Future generations of College Parents of America members will be watching these numbers closely; you should too.
An electronic copy of the Education Pays report, along with the other Trends reports and additional data tables, can be downloaded at www.collegeboard.com/trends.