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College tuition increased at historically low rates this year—why that's 'good news' for students

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The University of Maryland
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For decades, college costs — and student debt totals — steadily grew. Georgetown University researchers recently analyzed U.S. Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics data and found that from 1980 to 2019, college costs increased by 169%. But recently, this trend has been slowing.

When the coronavirus pandemic began and forced colleges to send students home, some experts predicted that the pandemic would force college prices to plateau. In 2020, researchers found reasons for optimism but maintained it was too soon to determine the long-term impacts of the pandemic on higher education. 

According to the College Board's 2021 Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report, during the 2021-2022 academic year, average tuition prices increased at historically low rates — and when adjusting for inflation, even decreased.

Source: The College Board

The recently released report finds that from 2020 to 2021, published tuition and fees increased by 1.3% for public two-year in-district students, 1.6% for public four-year in-state students, 1.5% for public four-year out-of-state students, and 2.1% for private nonprofit four-year students, on average. 

"Many schools continue to recognize that we're still in the middle of a pandemic and students and families are still struggling. And so many schools choose to keep their tuition flat," says Jennifer Ma, senior policy research scientist at College Board and author of the report. "In fact, about one-third of public four-year institutions did not raise tuition this year, and over half of community colleges did not raise tuition, and roughly 20% of private nonprofit four-year institutions froze their tuition." 

During the pandemic, many schools — including public universities in Maryland, Massachusetts and Michigan and private colleges such as Lehigh, Bucknell and Duke University — made public commitments to freeze tuition.

Plus, when taking inflation into consideration, many college costs effectively decreased says Ma.

"We compared the CPI from the first eight months (January through August) with the first eight months of 2020, and we calculated a 3.9% increase in the CPI. So after adjusting for inflation, all of these price increases are actually negative," she explains. "That means real tuition, after adjusting for inflation, declined in the 2021-2022 academic year."

And while many feared that higher education funding would be cut during the pandemic-induced recession, like it was during the Great Recession, Ma says emergency funding from the CARES Act and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) helped slow rising college costs and provide more grant and scholarship aid to students. The CARES Act first established the HEERF when it was passed on March 27, 2020 and HEERF has been extended twice since then.

"For next year, we expect to see maybe even a bigger bump in average grant aid," she says. "The CARES Act was passed in late March, so schools really didn't have a whole lot of time to distribute the money. And since the first HEERF funding, which was $14 billion, there were two more rounds of HEERF funding. So all three rounds combined, that almost totals $75 billion. So we're expecting to see a bit more of a bump in terms of the grant aid that students receive in this current academic year."

According to the report, during the 2020-2021 academic year full-time undergraduate students received an average of $14,800 in financial aid including $10,050 in grants (which in most cases do not need to be repaid), $3,780 in federal loans, $880 in education tax credits and $90 in federal work-study funds.

And though there are years of reasons to be skeptical, Ma is cautiously optimistic about the recent trends in college pricing and student aid. 

"For students, this is definitely welcome news," says Ma. "We're going to continue to monitor net price data, as we have always done. But this is definitely good news for students."

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