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Despite economy, college costs may accelerate

Officials point to state budget cuts, drop in donations

A report released Wednesday by the College Board showed that the average price of attending college rose more than 5 percent this fall, but education officials warned that the widening economic crisis might push tuition bills sharply higher next year.

Annual tuition, fees, room and board for in-state students at four-year public colleges and universities increased 5.7 percent for the current academic year, to a national average of $14,333, and rose 5.6 percent, to $34,132, at four-year private schools, according to the College Board’s annual college pricing survey. Financial aid reduced those bills in many cases.

The increases were close to the 5.6 percent overall inflation rate for the fiscal year ending July 2008 and were relatively moderate compared with a run-up of college costs a decade ago. “This is certainly not high by historical standards,” said Sandy Baum, a College Board analyst and economics professor at Skidmore College in New York.

But some officials said there might be trouble ahead. State budget cuts, college endowments hit hard by the tumbling stock market and an expected slide in donations could lead to higher charges for students and parents next year, they warned. On the other hand, some experts speculated that schools might be loath to hike prices at a time when many American families face layoffs, home foreclosures and shrinking investments.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said she was worried about the possibility of steep tuition hikes at both private and public colleges. “I am afraid this year’s (College Board) report may prove only to be a snapshot of a time in history that we might soon be referring to as ‘the good old days,’ ” she said in a prepared statement. Given the economic strains and endowment losses, college administrators “will be reluctant to increase tuition, but they will likely have little choice.”

Baum said she could not make predictions but conceded that campuses were feeling financial strains. “Obviously, the pressure is going to be very strong on colleges and universities, as it is going to be on the rest of the economy,” she told reporters in a telephone conference Wednesday.

At the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, spokesman Tony Pals pointed out that one school, Benedictine University in Illinois, recently froze tuition at the current level through spring 2010 and guaranteed that next year’s freshman class would see no increases through 2011, because of the financial problems many families are facing. Some other private schools may follow that example, Pals said, and others will work to limit hikes.

Nevertheless, average tuition increases probably will be larger next year than this one, Pals said. “But whether they will be significantly higher is too early to predict,” he said.