Our knee-jerk tuition fears
My colleague Dan de Vise's new piece about college tuition is the most useful article in the paper. He exposes the persistent distortion of tuition rates by colleges. They appear to think they have a great marketing advantage in inflating their sticker prices---high cost means high quality in the public mind---even if it creates a disabling sense of hopelessness in some families about their ability to send their kids to higher education.
His central statistic is astonishing: based on what private non-profit colleges ANNOUNCED were their tuition, fees and living expenses for this academic year, families are going to have to shell out $35,640 a year on average. But that is a fraud. Those same colleges do so much discounting and scholarship awarding that the actual average cost this year was only $21,200, 41 percent less than they said.
I think that is outrageous. Let's add inflated sticker prices as the sixth blind spot in our higher education system, as revealed by me in a recent Monday column.
Of course, we are partly to blame. We American consumers seem to WANT to believe that college costs more than it does.
A 1998 study by the American Council on Education showed that when Americans were asked to estimate the cost of a year's in-state tuition at a four-year public university, their guess was three times the actual cost.
This misimpression is particularly common among minority parents, who are less likely to have gone to college themselves and encountered the distortions in high ed's sticker price system. The American Council on Education study showed that African Americans were 83 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to think college was not affordable. Hispanics were 79 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to hold such beliefs.
Does anybody out there think the colleges have any justification for misleading us in this way? De Vise helpfully explains in his piece that the federal government will require all colleges to post a "net price calculator" on their Web sites by 2011 to help families see how much they might actually have to pay based on each college's previous discounting and aid policies for families at various income levels.
That's nice. I can't wait to see how prominently they display these devices, and whether or not those who bury them deep in their sites have any shame.
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please check out our new Higher Education page at href="http://washingtonpost.com/higher-ed">washingtonpost.com/higher-ed
| February 10, 2010; 12:04 PM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Americans misinformed about college costs, Dan de Vise, colleges distort their cost, net college tuition, tuition sticker shock
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