College tuition rose at the slowest rate on record in May, as an increased focus on affordability from both students, administrators and public officials shows signs of stopping what once appeared to be the runaway price of higher education.
“Both institutions and states are worried about rising prices and about price sensitivity and are trying to slow things down,” said Sandy Baum, an economist who studies higher education finance. “But I wouldn’t predict that concerns over inflation in higher education are over.”
That said, college tuition and fees rose just 1.7 percent May, compared with the prior year.
Of course, that means college is still getting more expensive, just a bit more slowly. Published tuition and fees and private and public four-year colleges rose to $33,500 and $9,700, respectively, for the 2016-17 academic year, both the highest level on record, according to research conducted by College Board, the group best known for its SAT and AP exams
But that 1.7 percent increase—published as part of the U.S. Consumer Price Index—is far lower than average 5.4 percent annual increase seen in tuition and fees over the last 20 years. The May annual prices increase was both the lowest rate on record and below the overall 1.9 percent inflation rate, as measured by C.P.I.
It’s hard overstate what a turn of events this is. For decades, the price of higher education has outstripped the overall inflation rate, making it increasingly more difficult to pay for the costs of attaining a college degree even as the credential became more and more important for securing meaningful, well-paid work.
Since 1980, while overall prices have have roughly tripled. But over that time, the costs of college fees and tuition rose more than 1100 percent.
Obviously, household incomes have not gone up anywhere near that much, forcing millions of Americans to take on increasing loads of student debt. According to the College Board, roughly 60 percent of those receiving undergraduate degrees in 2015 had student loans. Their debt load averaged around $28,000 a person. (For the record, that doesn’t include debt from students who go to for-profit schools, which can be much higher.)
By way of comparison, those who graduated from college in 2000 had average debt of a bit more than $21,000, more than 30 percent lower. There was $1.34 trillion in student loan debt outstanding at the end of March.
Analysts suggest there are a few reasons college tuition hikes appear to be leveling off. For instance, some states, which cut support for higher education sharply after the Great Recession and pushed up tuition at public colleges, have started been freezing tuition in response to public pressure.
Given that roughly 80 percent of all undergraduates attend public schools, that influences tuition trends at private colleges.
“There’s been a backlash against high tuition and governors have responded by freezing tuition in the public sector,” said Sarah Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University. “And privates are freezing tuition or even doing rollbacks to attract students.”
Besides the consumer price data, other nongovernment sources sources confirm a slowdown in the amount of tuition colleges have been pulling in. The College Board has also found that college price increases are slowing in recent years, especially for public colleges. And a recent report from Moody’s analysts who cover the higher education sector also noted that the days of college tuition revenue rising much faster than the basic inflation rate could be behind us, at least for now.
“The continued focus on affordability and accountability will continue to limit net tuition revenue growth to inflationary increases,” Moody’s analysts wrote in an annual outlook report on the higher education sector.
Cover: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images