Statistics Emphasize Higher Education Cost Swamp

Published July 29, 2011

As at least half the states cut higher education funding in recently concluded legislative sessions, the U.S. Department of Education has released a wealth of college-related data to aid families in college decision-making and boost completion rates. 

The data, now online, divides the most expensive 5 percent and least expensive 10 percent of colleges into six types and ranks them from highest to lowest in net prices. It also lists average student expenses and graduation rates by school. Come October, the department will require all colleges to post a net price calculator on their websites.

Govermment Pushing Costs Up
The cost focus reflects many Americans’ reluctance to invest time and money in higher education during the recession. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported in-state college tuition and fees rose 32 percent in one year and 57 percent of students completed college in four years in 2010, the latest data available. 

“Tuition prices are rising because they can,” said Richard Vedder, Ph.D., an economics professor at Ohio University. “There are very few incentives to keep them down.” 

Tuition rose when the government began paying students’ bills, Vedder said, decreasing price competition among colleges. After K-12 education and healthcare, higher education is usually the largest item in state budgets. 

Richard Brake, director of culture and enterprise at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, attributes rising tuition costs to colleges spending more money on appearances. 

“Colleges have to compete for students,” Brake said. “They have had to increase the bells and whistles that come along with the campus.” 

College Search Engines 
The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy recently created its own college evaluation tool, In addition to tuition numbers, the site offers information other sites do not, such as campus free speech policies and the difficulty of general education programs. 

“The best thing the website does,” said Jenna Robinson, the center’s uutreach coordinator, “is it allows families to choose a few criteria before entering in their search. This narrows down the number of schools and allows them to go into more depth than monster websites.” 

College Completion, at What Cost?
The DOE is reducing spending in other areas, such as for technical and vocational schools, to push its college completion campaign. This emphasis has concerned those who view technical and vocational certificates as a promising alternative to an associate degree. 

“One overriding reason for pursuing vocational/technical education and eschewing the traditional four-year trajectory is the recognition of the vocational/technical credential as a ticket to a good job,” said James Stone, president of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. 

Stone noted many students pursue a technical education because they do not excel in anacademic setting. He estimates government funding to technical education will decrease by 11 percent in the next year. Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Work reports 43 percent of graduates from technical and vocational schools earn higher salaries than associate degree graduates. 

The DOE will soon release more college-related data, including statistics on recent graduates’ college debt. It will also assess whether circulating such data increases college completion levels.