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Why smaller tuition hikes don't make college more affordable

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As more American families confront the daunting expense of pursuing a college degree, the College Board has some mixed news.

In a report released on Wednesday, the nonprofit, which administers the SAT college entrance exam, found a 2.2 percent to 3.6 percent increase in published tuition and fees in the 2016-2017 school year versus 2015-2016. That’s a smaller increase than the previous year-over-year change and the historical average. However, the latest increases outpaced the growth rates of financial aid, family incomes and overall inflation of 1.5 percent. 

As a result, the report noted, net prices -- what students actually pay after grants from all sources and federal tax benefits are considered -- keep rising.

“These increases, combined with stagnant incomes for many families, raise concerns about ensuring educational opportunities for low- and moderate-income students,” said Jennifer Ma, policy research scientist at the College Board, in a press release.

Rising college costs have many causes, including the decline in state and local government spending on higher education. The College Board estimates average in-state tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities at $9,650 in the 2016-2017 school year, up 2.4 percent before adjusting for inflation from $9,420 in 2015-2016. College costs at four-year private, nonprofit institutions rose 3.6 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis to $33,480 in the current school year from $32,300 in the previous one.

According to the organization, undergraduate students borrowed 18 percent less in 2015-2016 than they did in the 2010-2011 school year, and graduate students borrowed 6 percent less. Those figures, however, include students who attend programs but don’t graduate.   

And because financial aid is dwindling, students are graduating with increasing amounts of debt. Bachelor’s degree holders from the class of 2015 owed an average of $26,800 at public institutions and $31,400 at private ones. For the class of 2000, those figures were $20,900 and $23,900, respectively.

These trends have made college affordability a hot-button issue in the presidential election. 

Hillary Clinton has promised that families earning $85,000 or less would pay no tuition at in-state, four-year colleges and universities, with that benefit becoming available to families earning up to $125,000 by 2021.

Donald Trump argues that he’ll push schools to lower their tuition rates. And he has has offered to raise income caps for repayment plans and give student borrowers more flexible terms. But he also wants to abolish the Department of Education and privatize education loans.

Naturally, critics have found fault with both proposals, while others say neither candidate is tackling the issue as forcefully as it needs.