Sloppy reporting on college tuition

Michael Kirst’s blog is fairly typical in misreporting tuition trends:

The College Board just reported that the average price for a college education once again rose faster than the inflation rate this year, particularly at public four-year institutions

The cost of attending college is rising, as is student debt, but there are two ways in which Kirst’s description is inaccurate. First, the College Board report is about the average published tuition. Millions of college students pay less than the published tuition because of financial aid of various sorts. A second report documents that student aid is rising more slowly than published tuition, but this casual sloppiness is something I would not have expected from Kirst.

The second way in which Kirst’s description is inaccurate is the conflation of student costs with institutional costs. Outside for-profit institutions, students generally do not pay the full cost of their own education; both public funding and donations play a role in paying for the costs of college. To describe rising tuition as “the price of college” obscures the way that state legislatures have shifted costs from taxpayers to students and their families.

The costs that families pay for college is a serious problem, and this picture includes more than tuition. But we need to look at the picture systematically rather than in the fractured way that happens when we focus just on tuition.

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