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At Long Last, Signs That College Tuition Might Come Down

A hand holding money growing on a tree

It's a fall tradition: Students don college sweatshirts and their parents, meanwhile, sweat the tuition bills.One flash-in-the-pan movie this summer even featured a couple, played by Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, who start a casino to cope with their kids' college costs.Annual tuition hikes have been pretty much a given in higher ed, but recently, there are signs that the decades-long rise in college costs is nearing a peak.

  • In a marked change from previous years, net tuition at college and graduate schools rose in line with inflation over the last 12 months. Doesn't sound too encouraging? Well, consider that from 1990 through 2016, tuition grew at a rate more than double that of inflation, year after year.
  • Overall college enrollment has been decreasing for the past five years, both because of a dip in the birthrate among young adults and an improving job market drawing older adults back to the workforce. Lower demand can lead to deeper discounts, especially from private, nonprofit colleges.
  • On top of that, public free tuition programs are proliferating, with New York state's enormous system announcing the "Excelsior Scholarship" earlier this year. TheCampaign for Free College Tuitionsays more than half the states have some kind of merit-based free tuition, free community college "promise" program or at least legislative action on this front. Rhode Island's is the latest statewide program.

NPR Ed asked a range of experts: Is this a trend? Have we finally broken the back of the college tuition camel? Will college become more affordable, or at least start to be subject to normal market forces?Too soon to say: Sara Goldrick-Rab, Temple University, and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which researches college affordability: I think it is far too early to make such claims. Tuition increases are not necessarily down in response to the cries of the middle-class; in many cases [cuts or freezes] have been enacted by Republicans who seek to starve the public sector in order to "open" higher education for business. Declines in college enrollment may have nothing to do with prices; we are coming off a recession (which always increases enrollment due to lack of jobs) and it could be that. All that said, if people want college to be more affordable then they need to be far more vocal than they are currently being, voting with their feet for candidates with good plans, and continuing to keep up the pressure ... This administration is in the midst of raising college prices and increasing debt by unleashing the for-profit industry, and most of the public appears to be unaware.The rapid rise is over: Robert Kelchen, Seton Hall University: I think that the period of rapidly rising college tuition rates is over at this point, especially as students and their families become more price-sensitive and politicians pressure colleges to hold the line on tuition increases. I think we're moving into a period in which tuition prices increase at something close to the rate of inflation and students who choose to attend community colleges will often have tuition-free options for their first two years. But long-term issues about the cost of providing an education and who pays for financial aid programs will still remain.Focus on the neediest: Michelle Asha Cooper, Institute for Higher Education Policy: [T]ragically, the college affordability problem in America is largely one of inequity...To fulfill the promise of higher education—giving all people the opportunity to reach their full potential by participating and succeeding in college—our leaders must target precious aid dollars to our neediest students. Tuition is just one of several costs students must account for when considering how to finance their college education. Living expenses such as food, room and board, and transportation along with other educational expenses like books or class fees drive up college costs. Unsurprisingly, our neediest students struggle the most to manage these additional expenses."Free college" isn't always free: Ronald Ehrenberg, Cornell University: In New York State, which I know the best because I just recently ended my term on the SUNY board of trustees, the governor's [Excelsior Scholarship] program doesn't provide any money for living expenses. It's a quote "free" final-dollar tuition program for middle income students [whose families make] $60,000 up to $100,000 and soon $120,000 a year. But it doesn't do anything for the students in the state who are basically Pell-Eligible or eligible for state tuition assistance [based on low income]. These are the students who have the most trouble getting to, and through, college. If they're not full time, they are not eligible, and it's difficult for them to be full-time because they are supporting their own families. Plus, the additional living costs of attending a four-year college are more expensive than tuition. At SUNY campuses this year it's in the range of $6,500 but room and board will be $12-$15,000.Bring down costs, not just prices: Preston Cooper, research analyst, American Enterprise Institute: I'm reluctant to declare victory over tuition increases just yet: Tuition hikes could start accelerating again should the economy lose steam and more people decide to take refuge in college. I'm not really convinced that free college programs will remedy the college affordability problem for middle-class families. The problem is that the underlying cost of education is too high, meaning states will have a hard time funding free college for everyone. In New York, we recently saw that the number of applicants for their free tuition program vastly exceeded the number of available scholarships. Unless we find a way to bring down the underlying cost of education — not just provide more aid — I don't really see the affordability problem abating anytime soon. Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.