Are soaring college costs finally leveling off?

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(MoneyWatch) The latest annual cost figures from the College Board suggest that college price hikes are slowing, but it's easy enough to argue that those statistics are misleading. 

The average tuition at state universities for the 2013-14 school year increased 2.9 percent, the smallest rise in 30 years, according to the not-for-profit higher education advocacy group. The average tuition sticker price at state schools was $8,893, up from $8,646 the year before. Add the typical room and board charge to that total and the tab increases to $18,391.

The published tuition and fees charged by private, nonprofit colleges and universities increased 3.8 percent, down slightly from the four percent rise the previous year. The average tuition at private schools is now $30,094 and with room and board added the total average price climbs to $40,917 

While schools might appear to be slowing what has been an unrelenting series of price hikes over many years, when you look at the figures in a different way a far less optimistic story emerges. A problem with the College Board's report is its reliance on percentages to tell the story. As college prices have soared over the years, smaller percentage increases can still generate significant price hikes. 

So noted the New America Foundation in looking at the report by the College Board, which it pays to remember is a membership organization for colleges and universities.

"One of the benefits of decades worth of uninterrupted price increases is that eventually the same size price hike leads to a smaller percentage change," the Washington think-tank writes. "And sure enough, that 30-year-low in percentage terms is actually a $247 increase in published tuition -- the 19th lowest in the past three decades or 12th highest if you want to look at it in a more pessimistic light."

Private colleges and universities provided an even more compelling example. While the price hike for the current school year dropped from four percent to 3.8 percent, the published price went up just one dollar less than the previous year -- $1,105 versus $1,106. While the price increase was the third-lowest in three decades, the dollar change was the sixth-highest in 30 years.

These are not numbers that any family would feel like celebrating.

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