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How much college costs, 2007-2018

Price trends for undergraduate education – the history

We had introduced the details and concept behind our new undergraduate program price metric in a previous post after explaining why current ones were seriously deficient. The new metric, Net Cost, is broader and more accurate than metrics like Cost of Attendance and Net Price, and clarifies marketplace dynamics when applied to specific business cases.

To recap, Net Cost is a consumer-centric metric which shows costs as they are presented in commercial transactions outside of higher education.  It represents a full-time student’s cost of attending college including: tuition, room & board, fees and estimates of supplies less institutional aid of all kinds (including need-based and merit), and less federal and state/local aid.  Loans and other repayable amounts are excluded and do not reduce the cost.  Room and board charges used are on-campus costs for residential colleges; for students attending non-residential institutions, the college’s own estimate of such off-campus costs is mostly used.  Total average net cost for all students averages a college’s in- and out-of-state costs in proportion to the student body’s residence.  Net cost differs from the Net Price figure self-reported by colleges to the NCES because it is comprehensive and covers all students, including the over 40% not covered by Net Price calculations.

We thought it would be helpful to present the Average Net Cost index for US higher ed as a whole and then broken down for several components, including both charts and data. First, the broad US index, covering over 4,000 institutions from the period between 2007 and 2018

Historical college costs US 2010s

Average Net Cost, US undergraduate programs

One important thing to note is that “mix” has a big impact on this index, which is weighted by full-time equivalent student (FTE). Net Cost is a measure of student spend on undergrad. This index as a result both shows the impact of college price changes as well as changes to where students enroll – “mix”. The trend in the 2010s was for a gradual upscaling of student choices, from 2- to 4-year options, to more expensive 4-years, to more selective schools, meaning that the average individual college would not have managed to raise prices by the % shown above. Our estimate is that the actual straight unweighted % cost increases by colleges was 1.1% annually for 4-year schools and 0.3% for 2-years. These are the annual price increases taken by individual colleges on average during this period.

Disclaimer: mix calculations are complex and knowledgeable people arrive at different conclusions based on their approach. It is preferable to make broader assessment and say that “mix” accounts for about 1/3 of the Net Cost increases and 2/3 consisted of straight Net Cost increases.

The average annual increase in Average Net Cost for 2008-2018 was: 2.0%. Runaway inflation in higher ed has disappeared. For more on this rich topic, see our prior post on pricing trends, which also covers what is and what isn’t a driver.

The Average Net Cost index for 4-year programs is of course higher than the average for all schools:

US college costs 4-year programs 2010s

Average Net Cost, 4-year programs

And the 2-year college index is lower:

Community college average net cost 2010s

Average Net Cost, 2-year programs

Both 4- and 2-year indices show an annual Net Cost increase of 1.7%. (The fact that both indices show inflation of 1.7% yet the broader index shows higher inflation of 2.0% seems counterintuitive, but is the result of Mix. Students shift their undergrad enrollment within the 2- and 4-year categories and between Associate and Bachelor’s programs.)

One final comment: the 2-year plunge in Net Cost in 2011 is connected to the increase in the Pell program. Net Cost is a measure of student spend, so additional Pell outlays will reduce it without reducing college revenues.

Next we can further separate average pricing between private and public schools, between schools of different sizes, and for highly selective schools.

Beginning with public and private classifications:

Private and public college net costs 2010s

Public colleges saw annual Net Cost increases of 2.6% over this period, starting from a lower base than private schools, which averaged a lower 1.5%. (Mix again impacts affect these averages.) Private schools, who can be characterized as “swing” price setters, also exhibited more volatile pricing and discounted prices fairly aggressively during the Great Recession.

In terms of school size, bigger undergraduate programs have shown more market power in both pricing and in enrollment as is clear from this chart separating colleges into four categories: schools with >10,000 full-time undergrads, 5-10,000, 1-5,000 and <1,000 full time.

At the outset of the Great Recession, Net Costs for the smallest and largest categories were separated by about $2k; this disparity had surged to close to $6k by 2018. While the two larger segments above 5,000 full-time undergraduates showed growth rates of approximately 2.5%, the smallest schools with fewer than 1,000 full-time undergrads were able to raise prices only 0.7% annually. This performance by the small schools was only bit above the annual rate increases of 2-year programs, which was the weakest sector of any presented in this pair of overviews. (Again, mix affects these averages.) The enrollment and pricing weakness for small schools created a turbulent decade, with a large number of closings even before COVID, putting in doubt the viability of the “micro” category. There is strong evidence that students prefer large schools over a certain size threshold and that small schools have a dim future as a category.

Finally, selective colleges thrived, which will surprise no one. We divided this set of schools into those accepting less than 35% of applicants, those accepting less than 20% and the handful of Ivy League schools + Stanford + University of Chicago. (These sets of schools in these categories is not static, as the admissions arms race sharply increased the number of selective schools over the decade, a natural byproduct of applicants increasing the numbers of schools to which they apply.)  As expected, the most selective schools had the most pricing power.

These selective schools were able to raise prices the most of all categories, with a 2.8% annual appreciation, slightly more than the big schools displayed in the previous category. The Ivy League+ group with their lavish endowments actually limited their increases to a 1.5% rate. But the message here is that even in the face of sharply increasing application volumes, these selective schools either showed restraint or were unable to hike prices even 3% – not a particularly high price inflation rate and below that shown in the period before the Great Recession.

The price decreases in this selective segment during the Great Recession are also notable and need future investigation. Why did their Net Costs drop at all, as their applicant bases were several times the size of their entering classes? Why was their price drop far larger than the decline in the average student’s family income? Median family income of households with one bachelor holder – the index we think is the best predictor of college pricing (very high correlation with acceptable statistical significance) – only fell in 2009 and generally was close to flat in the recession’s other years. Yet highly selective schools, despite their large applicant bases, nevertheless cut their Net Cost aggressively. Some of these schools have substantial endowments and financial resources so can do so relatively easily, but others do not. Likely reasons are an interplay of:

  • Non-financial academic & demographic objectives (enrolling a diverse set of the best students, maintaining stable acceptance rates);
  • Family income as a statistic does not fully reflect the economic trepidation of students and families during a recession, who economize on college spending out of fear;
  • Price competition with non-selective colleges struggling to hit their enrollment targets;
  • The ability to raise prices later for first-year students as they continued on in their college careers after their freshman year and their family finances recovered (need-based aid serving as a kind of income participation process for the colleges).

All played some role, but their precise interaction needs to be elucidated with more analysis.

Stepping away from the minutiae, the big theme here is that higher ed has lost the ability to raise prices faster than inflation. Even colleges in high demand had to either restrain or cut their price levels during the Great Recession’s enrollment spike. Afterwards, as the economy recovered, undergrad program pricing strength got a bit better, but now faced headwinds from gradually declining enrollment numbers and excess capacity. It’s hard not to speculate about the cultural shifts behind this altered economic landscape, but we will restrain ourselves.

Find out more granular information on individual college pricing here.  You can also find this report in two blog posts at CTAS Higher Ed Business.