College is Cheaper…?


Being a parent of two college kids, I’m keenly aware of the cost of higher education. Both are in undergrad programs at state schools. However, both also chose to go to college in a state other than the one in which we live, which means we don’t enjoy that differential called “in-state tuition.”

We planned on college expenses, so we aren’t in danger of missing any meals or needing to sell off jewelry to pay for it, but that doesn’t make it less expensive. Writing those checks every semester makes you wonder if the education received is truly worth the price of a used car… every single semester.

Luckily, I can now report that I was wrong.

The cost of education is NOT rising as I’d thought. In fact, simply looking at tuition, the price of college has actually fallen over the last 10 years. At least, that is, according to a College Board report…


This report explains how the average student pays roughly 57% of the sticker price for college, whereas they used to pay 68% of the sticker price in 2003-2004. So, after adjusting for inflation, tax benefits, and discounts-off-of-list, voila!…

Magically education is cheaper in terms of what people actually pay.

Unless, of course, it’s not.

The problem with the College Board report is that it jumbles up several items to arrive at an average, and then reports the information as if it applies to everyone.

Grants, which the U.S. governrnment funds, are only available to those in the lower-income brackets. While this makes college education attainable for those from modest incomes, it neither applies to everyone nor means that college costs less. Instead, it means that U.S. taxpayers foot some (or all) of the bill.

Shifting the cost to a third party doesn’t make it go away, no matter what the College Boards (or the Affordable Care Act for that matter) tells us.

And do tax benefits of higher education actually flow to the same people that receive grants? Isn’t that illogical on its face? Come to think of it, what are the tax benefits? I’m looking for a way to write off education costs, but so far I’ve not seen that on a tax form.

As for discounts and reductions, they don’t flow to everyone. Schools get to offer discounts to kids on whatever basis they want to. Are they including athletes in this? Merit scholarships? Hardship allowances? What happens to the kids who don’t qualify? Oh, that’s right, they pay.

Finally, there’s the lie of inflation.

The world is full of people who point out that something costs the same or less, adjusted for inflation. This only makes sense if everyone’s income is also adjusted for inflation.

If you happen to be among the tens of millions of American workers whose income is not keeping pace with inflation, then you, my friend, are falling behind.

Given that median household income has failed to keep pace with inflation for the last five years, and is lower now than it was in 1999, more than half of all American households are falling behind.

So it appears that college tuition cost less today than it did ten years ago… as long as your income is moving up at least as fast as inflation, your income is low enough to qualify for grants, your income is high enough to take advantage of unspecified tax benefits, and your student has been offered tuition discounts.

Somehow, it seems highly unlikely that anyone actually fits this description.

What seems more likely is that the College Board is serving its main constituents – that is, colleges – by putting out a tortured piece of research that gets to a desired outcome.

This is disappointing, but not particularly surprising.

The galling part of this is that it received a third of a page in The New York Times with no rebuttals in the article at all. I’d imagine that the reporter did not take many classes in math or statistics.

Unfortunately, no matter what the College Board reports, college costs have moved dramatically higher in the last ten years.

Telling parents that “on average” things are cheaper after adjusting for inflation doesn’t do much to lower the bills that show up every semester.

Now, if universities threw in a free car, well, then we’d have something to talk about. Until that happens, I’m sure that like most parents of college kids, I’ll keep making the payments and I’ll keep reading such reports and news stories with a skeptical eye.


Follow me on Twitter @RJHSDent


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