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Average tuition costs up, but experts aren’t optimistic about pace of rise slowing

This article originally appeared in The Diamondback on October 29, 2013.

By Jim Bach

A recent report signals that increasing college costs might be slowing down, but experts said to tread with caution, as there is still much work to be done in addressing college affordability.

Average in-state tuition and fees increased 2.9 percent at public four-year schools in the 2013 school year, down from a 4.5 percent increase in the 2012 school year and significantly lower than the 8.5 percent increase in 2011. This year’s numbers reflect the smallest percentage increase in more than 30 years, according to last week’s “Trends in College Pricing” from the College Board.

In this state, tuition and fees for four-year public universities increased 8 percent over a five-year period, a low rate compared to several other states, such as California with a 57 percent increase. The slow rise is in part due to the state legislature’s efforts to keep higher education funding flowing during the recession, when other states were forced to slash budgets.

“Funding from the state was critical in making possible a zero increase in undergraduate, in-state education for any freshman who matriculated in fall 2005 and graduated in four years,” University System of Maryland spokesman Mike Lurie wrote in an email. “Since 2010, that same support has helped USM maintain annual tuition increases of 3 percent for those same students, keeping the USM ahead of national trends in tuition growth.”

But Rory O’Sullivan, policy and research director at Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit representing the interests of 18- to 34-year-olds, warned there are still strides to be made, and one small percentage increase amid years of larger increases does not necessarily signify a change in trends.

“It doesn’t show signs of tuition coming down; it shows signs of tuition slowing its growth rate,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve been seeing 5, 6, 7 percent increases year on year.”

O’Sullivan said he wants to see a bigger sample size before he’s sold on the idea that college costs are close to coming down. The smaller percentage increase is “welcome, but we have a long way to go.”

Sandy Baum, co-author of the College Board report, echoed similar sentiments.

“This year’s slowing of the price spiral does not mean that college is suddenly more affordable, that concerns about student debt will be set aside, or that low- and moderate-income students will no longer face financial hurdles as they pursue their educational ambitions,” she said to The Washington Post. “But it is good news, and we hope it will allow more focus on helping students to access the available financial aid and to enroll and succeed in college.”

This state has stacked up favorably thanks to its legislature’s continued investment in higher education. Gov. Martin O’Malley has given generously to state public schools and the legislature’s similar funding goals led to a 7.5 percent increase in state funding to higher education over the last year, though state budgets will continue to be a challenge regardless of who is in office, experts said.

“Moving forward, there will be a commitment to making sure that Maryland colleges and universities are affordable for our students,” said state Higher Education Secretary Danette Howard.

University and university system officials have lauded O’Malley’s continued support for higher education. While O’Malley’s second term will expire in Jan. 2015, Howard said she doesn’t foresee O’Malley’s successor abandoning his commitment to higher education or slashing the funding stream.

“The groundwork has been laid, and I think that everyone now realizes that there are significant benefits to making sure that our campuses are affordable,” Howard said. “I believe that the next governor will see that there’s real merit and great benefit to our state as a whole.”

Lurie wrote in the email that it is too early to determine where in-state tuition will go this year, but the university system “is committed to working proactively with state leadership to keep this trend of slow tuition growth in place.”