College tuition and fees, as well as financial aid, increased slightly this year after accounting for inflation, but some experts believe the struggling economy may force substantial price increases next year. Average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year institutions increased by 6.4 percent, or $394, reaching a total of $6,585, according to a report released last Wednesday by the College Board.
This is a .7 percent increase after accounting for a 5.6 inflation rate so far this year, the highest inflation rate in 26 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The University of Massachusetts' tuition and fees increased 3 percent from last year to $10,232. According to the College Board, this is roughly $2,000 more than the average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges in New England, which have the highest of any region in the country.
Financial aid also increased across the country, according to the report. On average, undergraduates received $4,656 in grants and $3,650 in federal loans, about a 5 percent increase for both over the last year, after adjusting for inflation.
Since 1998, average undergraduate grant aid increased by $1,494 (in constant 2007 dollars), about two-thirds of the dollar increase in average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions over the same period.
Failure of grant aid to match tuition has increased the net price, the amount most students pay after receiving financial aid, of four-year public colleges over the past five years.
This year, there was an 11 percent increase in the average net price at public four-year institutions, from $2,600 to $2,900.
The American Council of Education predicts the declining economy will give the College Board report a "limited shelf life."
"I am afraid this year's 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,'" said Molly Corbett, President of the ACE.
During previous economic downturns, states imposed double-digit tuition increases on public colleges, according to recent article on InsideHigherEd.com.
Shrinking state revenues and budgets have already forced public colleges in Rhode Island and Michigan to institute mid-year tuition increases. So far, 17 states have cut funding to public colleges this fiscal year.
Massachusetts is one of these states. Last month, Governor Deval Patrick announced a mid-year budget cut of 5 percent, forcing Chancellor Robert Holub to reduce UMass's budget by $12 million for this fiscal year.
This reduction will be accomplished by "one-time cuts to campus units and a halt to all hiring except for the most critical, strategic positions," Holub said in a campus-wide e-mail. "By taking these one-time budget actions now, we will not request mid-year fee increases, nor will we make cuts to student financial aid."
Holub cautioned these measures were only for this fiscal year, and said he would begin discussions with the campus community to deal "with this fiscal crisis and the base budget reductions these cuts represent in the next fiscal year's budget."
These "base budget reductions" in next year's budget have some UMass students apprehensive.
Phillip White, class of 2010, said he fears tuition increases next year, especially when informed of the ACE prediction.
"We were able to avoid tuition increases or cuts to financial aid this year, but what about next year?" White said. "The economy is going to keep getting worse, and UMass might lose even more state aid. They have to cut costs somewhere."
Keeping tuition down nextyear may make it harder for colleges to meet increased demand for financial aid, said Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst for the College Board and professor of economics at Skidmore College.
"The tension may be: Are they going to decide they need more money for financial aid or to just hold tuition down?" she said.
This dilemma comes at a time when more people are seeking financial aid. The number of people who applied for the federal Pell Grant Program, which serves low-income students, increased by almost 800,000 in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period last year. This is the largest increase ever over such a time period, according to the Department of Education.
The College Board report put the total number of people receiving the grant at 5.4 million, a 5 percent increase over last year's number of 5.2 million. Department of Education officials said Congress may need to increase funding to the program by up to $6 billion to reflect this increased demand.