Personal Finance

Coronavirus slows pace of college tuition increases

Key Points
  • Although average tuition increased again in 2020, the increases are among the lowest in decades.
  • Despite that, America’s student debt burden continues to grow.

In this article

Coronavirus impacts college affordability—What students should know
Coronavirus impacts college affordability—What students should know

Over the last decade, the cost of attending a four-year public college or university has grown significantly year after year. Until now.

Amid the coronavirus and economic crisis, increases in tuition and fees are lower than ever, according to a report by the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.

For the 2020-21 academic year, average tuition and fees increased by just 1.1% for in-state students at four-year public colleges, reaching $10,560, and 2.1% for students at four-year private institutions, to $37,650 — the lowest percentage increases in three decades, according to the College Board.

In 10 states, average tuition and fees at four-year, in-state public schools did not increase at all.

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"This year's data underscore the profound impact Covid-19 has had on higher education," Jessica Howell, the College Board's vice president for research, said in a statement.

"Although average tuition increased again this year, the increases are among the lowest we've seen since 1990-91."

Still, college costs have reached unsustainable levels, many experts say.

During the Great Recession, a decrease in government aid to both public and private colleges and universities caused tuition to skyrocket. Today, tuition accounts for about half of college revenue, while state and local governments provide the other half.

But roughly three decades ago, the split was much different, with tuition providing just about a quarter of revenue and state and local governments picking up the rest.

Because so few families can shoulder the burden, they have increasingly turned to federal and private aid to help foot the bills, pushing outstanding student debt to a stunning $1.6 trillion.

Despite a steep drop in interest rates, overall student debt has only increased during the pandemic, according to a separate report by Fidelity Investments — across generations and regardless of occupations.

In fact, the amount of debt owed by baby boomers jumped 33% in 2020, thanks in part to their taking out parent PLUS loans for their children.

The Fidelity report found that employees working in the health-care and social assistance industry, among the pandemic's font-line workers, carry the most student debt.

"The current tuition rates do not have a direct impact on the 45 million Americans who have already incurred student debt, which is both financially and emotionally stressful for so many people across all generations," said Asha Srikantiah, head of Fidelity Investments' student debt program.

This year, because of the pandemic, college costs have become an even bigger consideration among students and parents.

A number of colleges have responded by freezing tuition in hopes of attracting more students and families struggling with the weight of a higher-education tab.

Some schools, including Rider University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, both in New Jersey, said they will go one step further and cut tuition in the year ahead.

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