Rising costs for college education continue to outpace families' earnings
Mitchell Mary, 22, has been paying his way through college by working part time at Best Buy, watching tuition costs notch up every year.
“It's hard to make enough money to pay for classes and not take out loans,” said Mary, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg who said he will graduate with debt. “At a certain point, you just expect it to keep going up.”
A new report from College Board shows that costs rose again in 2013-14, but it was the smallest percentage increase in 30 years.
But even as universities and colleges attempt to tamp down costs, students are paying more in tuition and fees because federal and state aid is not keeping pace.
In its annual report on college pricing and student aid released this week, the nonprofit College Board reported a 2.9 percent increase nationally for in-state tuition and fees at public, four-year institutions, compared to a 4.5 percent increase in 2012-13 and an 8.5 percent hike the year before.
The smaller increase was good news on the region's campuses.
“I would think that students and parents alike would be relieved to hear that message,” said University of Pittsburgh spokesman Kenneth Service.
Pitt raised costs 3.2 percent for 2013-14, bringing tuition and fees to $17,100. It went up 3 percent last year and 8.5 percent in 2011-12. Tuition and fees at the Greensburg campus are $13,128 for 2013-14, a 1.8 percent increase over last year.
The trend — a steep jump followed by smaller increases as the economy recovers — is typical in recessions, said study author Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute.
“This is good news, but it's not like, oh, no more problem,” said Baum, who expects increases in tuition costs to outpace economic recovery.
According to the study, real income in 2011 and 2012, adjusted for inflation, remained lower at all levels than in 2002.
Federal grant aid has leveled off, but state and institutional aid has increased, Baum said.
“Grant aid did go up, but it didn't go up as much as the price went up,” she said, noting that many students are struggling as much as before.
Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management at Duquesne University, said the school has boosted financial aid to students to narrow the gap between tuition and federal and state aid.
“Institutions have to give away more dollars to help families afford the cost of attendance,” he said.
Duquesne's tuition rose 4 percent this year, on par with previous years, to $31,385.
State- and state-related-school officials say past tuition spikes resulted from a sharp 18 percent drop in state funding several years ago.
Two years ago, the state mandated that those schools keep their tuition increase on par with inflation to see their state subsidies maintained. This year, the state asked that schools keep costs near inflation, about 3 percent.
Local colleges obliged.
“That's been a conscious effort to keep tuition down in the face of some fairly significant cuts in state subsidy,” Service said.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education raised tuition 3 percent in each of the past two years, said spokesman Kenn Marshall. But in 2011-12, students saw a 7.5 percent spike.
Marshall said rising health care and pension expenses make it difficult to keep tuition costs down.
Pennsylvania is ranked third in the nation for most expensive public college tuition, behind Vermont and New Hampshire.
Nationally, average in-state tuition and fees at public schools cost $8,893 for four-year and $3,264 for two-year institutions.
The national numbers unfairly paint Pennsylvania public schools as expensive, Marshall said. The average annual tuition and fees for a state school in Pennsylvania is $9,004.
Seton Hill, a private college, raised tuition 3 percent last year to about $30,000. According to the report, average published tuition and fees at private, nonprofit, four-year institutions rose by 3.8 percent, to $30,094.
“We're really trying our best to address the affordability issue without sacrificing quality,” said Michael Poll, vice president of enrollment management at Seton Hill.
He said students and parents are focusing on investment returns, forcing colleges to show them what will result from money spent on a college degree.
“Universities are increasing tuition and fees at a higher rate than a family's income is, increasingly,” Poll said. “Eventually, that is a recipe for disaster. Now, we've been given a heads-up — this cannot continue. It's given the higher education community a wake-up call. I think that's a good thing.”
Student surveys at Westmoreland County Community College show many high school students are choosing the college based on the low cost, said President Daniel Obara.
“There isn't any question the last couple of years have been challenging in a environment for diminishing support for public education,” he said. “It is challenging to keep tuition affordable.”
Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.