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Report shows changes in higher education costs

The condition of tuition increases and student debt is improving across the country, according to a new series of reports on the subject. But the improvement represents a deceleration of current cost and debt increases, rather than a reversal of the trend of the past few decades. 

Price increases are not stopping, but they have slowed down in the past five years, said Jennifer Ma, a policy research scientist for The College Board. Her report compared the cost of tuition and fees over the past five years for a variety of colleges. 

“The price increases lately are rather moderate,” she said. “The increase is the lowest since the mid-1970s.”

The national average price increase in in-state published tuition and fees between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic year was 2.9 percent. The average tuition and fees total for public four-year institutions was $9,139 for 2014-15, according to the report.

New Jersey is hardly the leader in that trend. Rutgers, with an annual tuition and fees total of more than $13,000, has the fifth-highest in-state tuition and fees in the nation, Ma said. 

But Rutgers performs much better in price increases. It had the seventh-lowest price increase over the past five years among flagship universities, or the major universities in each state. 

In the past five years, Rutgers’ price increases totaled just 5 percent. 

The report also measured the amount of student aid and found that loan borrowing is slowing down.

“There is more grant aid than loans for undergraduates … which is probably because enrollment is down,” she said.

The slowing price increases may relate to the improving economy, as well as the improved state funding in many locations. These conditions mean universities do not have to increase tuition as much as before.

“After many years of price increases, there has been public pressure to keep tuition low,” she said. 

Net prices, which represent the cost of attendance after grant aid is subtracted from costs, have also increased. But they have not increased as much as the costs themselves, indicating that more grant aid is going to students.

The average in-state full-time undergraduate student receives $6,110 in aid at four-year public institutions in 2014-15, according to the report. 

Meanwhile, Matthew Reed, program director for the Institute for College Access and Success, or TICAS, said its offshoot, The Project on Student Debt, compared student debt load from state to state.

It found that 69 percent of students who graduate from public and private nonprofit colleges in 2013 have debt upon graduation, and the average debt is $28,400. Student debt is still rising about 2 percent, but it is not rising as fast as it did in recent years. 

“We don’t know exactly what it is,” he said. “Some students and families can take on more cost, because of the improving economy. But since we don’t measure parent debt, only student debt, parents and families may still be borrowing.”

New Jersey places 18th in the nation in student debt load, Reed said. Seventy percent of students graduate with debt, with an average debt load of $28,109 in 2013. 

It is an unusual state, since three-quarters of students graduate from public colleges, he said. 

“The public colleges [in New Jersey] have higher costs compared to other states, but grant aid is higher,” he said. 

Still, when grant aid does not keep up with tuition, it is left to students’ families to cover the remaining cost. Reed advised them to turn to public rather than private sources of loans. 

Public loans come with protects such as income-based repayment plans, whereas private loans can have variable rates. Reed’s organization is calling for better reporting from private loan lenders as well as universities. 

Colleges report big swings in debt from one year to another, which raises questions about the accuracy of their calculations.

“Only with comprehensive, reliable data for every college will we see the full picture of student debt,” Reed said in a press release. “This is too important an issue for students, schools and policymakers to rely on voluntary, self-reported data.”

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