Panicking yet? Take a deep breath—the general consensus is that current college pricing trends largely aren't sustainable. "There's no way for them to continue that pricing surge," said Jeffrey Selingo, author of "College (Un)Bound" and "MOOC U." Costs will certainly be higher than they are today, but the higher they go, the more families will be priced out or unwilling to take on the debt of attending, sending more in search of lower-cost alternatives, such as public colleges, two-year degrees or online platforms like start-up Minerva.
Only a select few colleges (think Ivy League institutions and others, where applicants far outstrip acceptances) will retain the pricing power to make big annual jumps in tuition, he said. Most will need to assess their cost structure to keep prices low enough to remain a viable option—or risk closing.
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Measures might include hybrid classes with an online component to allow more students in core classes without requiring additional professors or classrooms, Selingo said. Or data analytics to help students efficiently pick classes, cutting down bills by meeting graduation requirements in fewer semesters.
As costs rise, families are also likely to focus more on the value of the college selected, said Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online. "Right now there's a lot of competition in terms of price," she said. But the final choice may come down to less important factors. "We see students picking a campus based on whether there's a rock climbing wall and 12 different kinds of cereal in the cafeteria."
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A bachelor's degree is currently worth about $300,000 in extra wages over the course of a working life, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Rising costs to attend and mounting student loans become more of an issue if graduates can't land jobs.
"It's not just about price, but the quality of the education as it relates to preparing students," said Aldridge, who is also the author of "Wired for Success: Real-World Solutions for Transforming Higher Education." "That's the area where we get the value on investment, not in all the facilities."