Twenty-one years ago, as I entered my senior year in college, my alma mater reached a significant milestone: the price tag passed the $20,000 mark. Today, tuition, fees, room, and board for a senior at Ithaca College are more than twice that, at about $53,000.
Now, of course, Ithaca and most other private colleges and universities rightfully argue that just a small percentage of students pay those “sticker prices” because schools give out boatloads of financial aid (read: discounts). They’re right. The average discount for first-year students at private colleges is 46 percent.
Even in the early 1990s, I received a significant break on my tuition. If I were a student at Ithaca today, for example, I’d pay an average “net price” of $29,000 based on my parent’s income when I was a student, according to the U.S. Education Department. (You can find a college’s net price by income level on the Education Department’s College Navigator).
This is the time of year when private colleges are setting their tuition levels for next year, if they haven’t already. And at most colleges the question that emerges every year is what’s the breaking point? How high can we go with tuition until it’s just too much?
It appears whatever that line might be, some colleges have yet to reach it. The ranks of the most expensive colleges continues to swell: 57 colleges are charging $60,000 or more for tuition, fees, room, and board for 2014-15, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education listing of tuition data released by the College Board. In 2009-2010, only five colleges surpassed the $50,000 mark. And just 10 years ago, I wrote an article about how Bates College in Maine went past the $40,000 mark, which at the time was a line few wanted to cross. Just 75 colleges at the time had charged more $40,000. Today, the average sticker price of a private four-year college is $42,419.
While reporting that article on Bates, I witnessed how colleges set tuition levels each year. It’s a complicated, lengthy process for campuses that are essentially mini-cities and rely on lots of labor. At the time, salaries accounted for more than 60 percent of the budget at Bates.
But the annual exercise in setting tuition is not an exact science. It’s about a college’s position in the marketplace. No campus wants to be an outlier among its competitors.
Bates used to set its price early in the year and then decided to wait until its competitors announced their prices. The result is that the tuition level is a somewhat elastic number for most colleges, a price not totally based on their revenue needs. A group of colleges in competition can either help escalate prices in a given year or keep a lid on them.
During the past decade, the sticker price at private colleges has moderated quite a bit, when adjusted for inflation, according to the College Board. Still, during that same decade, wages have stagnated or fallen for most Americans. So even if tuition prices remained level, they eat up a larger portion of a family’s paycheck today than a decade ago.
When it comes to discussions about the rising cost of college, higher education leaders loathe when the media and the public solely focus on the sticker price, because so few students pay that. But some do pay that amount, and at elite colleges able to maintain pricing power, that might be a quarter to half of the student body. Eventually, as the list price continues to rise, even those parents will begin to push back, especially when their sons or daughters are not getting anything extra in return for paying a premium.
Perhaps more important is that the sticker prices of colleges drive the perception that higher education is increasingly out of reach for many Americans. For students who are first in their family to go to college or come from low-income families, the sticker price often scares away even the academically talented among them before they ever know what they might actually pay.
If colleges continue to maintain that so few people actually pay the sticker price, then maybe it’s time for them to stop advertising it and develop a new pricing approach that is more realistic and transparent for more of their students. But simply continuing to announce sticker prices every spring — when more and more people are paying less of that bill — doesn’t start to change the conversation about college costs that they dislike so much.
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