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College Board report suggests the pandemic may have paused rising college costs

The University of Massachusetts Amherst is among the schools that have frozen tuition for the 2020-2021 school year.
John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has forced U.S. colleges and universities to close their campuses, move classes online and take on the responsibility of testing, quarantining and protecting students. Some have wondered if the pandemic would also force schools to lower their prices.  

While experts have maintained that it is too soon to determine the long-term impacts of the pandemic on higher education, a new report suggests the pandemic may have, at least temporarily, paused rising college costs. 

On Monday, the College Board released its annual Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report which indicates that this year, college costs increased at the lowest rate in decades. 

According to the report, between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2020-21 school year, the average tuition and fees paid by in-state students at public four-year institutions increased by 1.1%, while these costs increased by 2.1% for students at private nonprofit four-year institutions, marking the lowest increase in 30 years. 

Tuition has historically risen roughly 3% each year, but over the past several months, many schools —including public universities in MarylandMassachusetts and Michigan and private colleges such as LehighBucknell and Duke University — have made public commitments to freeze tuition.

This year's relatively modest increases mean that the average tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 school year was approximately $37,650 at private colleges, $10,560 at public colleges and $3,770 at public community colleges. 

Courtesy of The College Board

Courtesy of The College Board

"This year's data underscore the profound impact covid-19 has had on higher education," says Jessica Howell, College Board's vice president for research, in a statement. "Although average tuition increased again this year, the increases are among the lowest we've seen since 1990-91."

"In 14 states, the average public two-year in-district tuition and fees did not increase in 2020-21. In 10 states, the average public four-year in-state tuition and fees did not increase," adds Jennifer Ma, senior policy research scientist at College Board and co-author of the report. "Institutions are recognizing the struggles students and families face in paying for college, especially during a pandemic."

Still, many experts warn that this pause could be temporary, as the United States continues to face an economic recession that may lead to federal and local cuts to higher education funding. When such cuts happened during the 2008 recession, college costs boomed.

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