Blog: The Educated Reporter

‘Tuition Tracker’ Shows Real Price Tags For College

In the wake of the 2008 recession, college cost and affordability have become increasingly hot topics. As tuition prices have continued to rise well above the pace of inflation — with no accompanying growth in family incomes — the issue of access for low- and middle-income students has received more attention, to the extent that, in January, President Obama held a White House summit to press college leaders to do more for the poorest students.

But at a workshop held at EWA’s 67th National Seminar in Nashville, Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report and Holly Hacker of The Dallas Morning News made the case that institutions are doing “exactly the opposite” of what their leaders promised at that summit. As tuitions climb, Marcus and Hacker said, colleges and universities are effectively sticking low-income students with a disproportionate share of the burden.

Hacker and Marcus spoke at a session promoting the use of Tuition Tracker, a new online tool created by the EWA, The Hechinger Report and The Dallas Morning News. Tuition Tracker uses data from the U.S. Department of Education to show how the net price of college – that is, what students and their families have to pay after federal, state, and institutional scholarships and grants — has changed for students from various income groups over several years. Figures on the site go back to the 2008-2009 school year, thanks to a 2008 law requiring colleges to report the average net price for students who received at least some federal financial aid.

Journalists, prospective students and their parents, and other interested parties can simply type in the name of any American college or university — the site boasts more than 3,700 institutions across all sectors — to bring up a chart showing the year-over-year change in net price at that institution for students from five different income groups, ranging from a family-income low of $0-$30,000 to a high of $110,001 and up. Tuition Tracker also has separate charts that show the percentage of freshmen receiving grants, the percentage receiving loans, and the average amount of those grants and loans. (The most recent school year shown is 2011-2012, but Hacker noted that the next year’s figures will be coming out this summer, and Tuition Tracker will be updated at that time.)

At Columbia University, a particularly dramatic example, the 90 students from the lowest income group paid a net price of $4,870 in 2008-2009. Just a few years later,  the 72 students from that group paid $12,018 in 2011-2012. Meanwhile, the 153 students in the highest income group paid a net price of $39,860 in 2008-2009 — but the 212 students in that group in 2011-2012 actually paid less: $36,551. Tuition Tracker also shows how many students were in each group every year, so users can also see whether institutions are, say, enrolling more high-income students but fewer low-income students over time.

Public institutions are no exception to the trend. At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the 281 students in the wealthiest group paid significantly more in 2011-2012 ($17,318) than did the 181 students from that group in 2008-2009 ($13,847) — but the price increase was much more pronounced for the poorest students, who paid just $1,609 in 2008-2009 (383 students), but $7,781 in 2011-2012 (536 students).

The proportionally greater jump in tuition for poorer families “is happening just as much at public universities,” Marcus said, “which you’d think would have some sort of obligation” to remain accessible to low-income students.

Tuition Tracker isn’t perfect. Perhaps its biggest flaw is that colleges are only required to report the net price for first-time, full-time students receiving federal financial aid. At many institutions, such students make up only a fraction of the total undergraduate population — typically the poorest fraction. Tuition Tracker does note what percentage of an institution’s students receive federal aid and are therefore counted in the tool’s data: 22 percent at Harvard University, for example, compared with 65 percent at nearby Bunker Hill Community College.

Still, the site is a useful tool for reporters needing “a couple of quick facts that you can jump right into,” Marcus said. He and Hacker both encouraged reporters at regional news outlets to use Tuition Tracker as a starting point for stories on the institutions in their area. “It’s a really good story to localize,” Hacker said. As the EWA’s Tuition Tracker page shows, a number of journalists have already done so. The tool’s creators hope many more will follow.


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