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Families grapple with rising college costs


It's the time of year when many students and their parents are making decisions about where to go to college next fall. That decision is often about money, especially as many colleges are planning tuition hikes for next year. As NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports, there is some good news about college costs amid those price tag increases.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Despite the hard financial decisions families are making this spring...

ROBERT KELCHEN: Tuition is nowhere near keeping up with inflation.

NADWORNY: Robert Kelchen studies student financial aid and college finance at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

KELCHEN: The last three or four years have seen some of the smallest tuition increases in decades.

NADWORNY: The other good news? - that sticker price, the big number on a college website, very few families actually pay that.

PHILLIP LEVINE: Only about 1 in 6 students actually pay the sticker price for your institution.

NADWORNY: Phillip Levine is an economics professor at Wellesley College. He has new research looking at what most students do pay - the price, minus grants and scholarships, sometimes called the net cost. Or, as Levine says, the real price of college.

LEVINE: In the end, the real price of college, after adjusting for inflation, has actually been falling.

NADWORNY: He drilled down on selective colleges, often those with really big sticker prices, and found the same trend.

LEVINE: You know, families are paying, you know, roughly 20% less than they did seven or eight years ago.

NADWORNY: The federal Pell Grant, which is money for low-income students, will also increase for next fall. The maximum amount will be just over $7,000 a year, thanks to Congress. Though, the Biden administration had unsuccessfully pushed to double that amount. But all this seemingly good news comes as families are struggling with rising rents and high costs of goods.

SANDY BAUM: So when that happens, then you just have less money left to pay for things.

NADWORNY: Sandy Baum is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. She says with inflation so high, anything that's a big part of your budget - say, college tuition - is going to be painful.

BAUM: So you don't need an increase in college prices for people to feel strained paying for college.

NADWORNY: Millions of students are struggling to make this math work right now. Neveah Flemming, a high school senior in Washington, D.C., got into 13 colleges, but she's not exactly celebrating.

NEVEAH FLEMMING: I don't know how to feel about it anymore because I used to be so happy to receive congratulations in the mail.

NADWORNY: But recently, that happiness turned to sadness as she realized even after all her financial aid, the cost of college was still way more than her family could pay.

FLEMMING: Yes, I like the schools. I applied to them. I got into them, but I can't go to them.

NADWORNY: She pulls up a spreadsheet tracking all of her colleges' details...

FLEMMING: OK, so I have the numbers up.

NADWORNY: ...The sticker price, the scholarships and how much she's expected to pay.

FLEMMING: The least amount that I would have to pay for one of my colleges is 9000.

NADWORNY: And $9,000 was just too much. She's the oldest of four kids and determined not to take out student loans.

FLEMMING: I don't want that in my life at all. I know what it does to people.

NADWORNY: So her plan now? - apply to even more schools and see if she can make the money work. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.