Kerry only tells half the story on college costs

As part of his litany of George Bush woes, John Kerry cites rising college costs. It’s up dramatically since Bush took office, he says, pricing hundreds of thousands of students out. Kerry cites only the “sticker price” of tuition and fees, however. He’s ignoring that the net price that’s the sticker price discounted by grant aids and tax benefits is actually lower now than it was ten years ago.

Kerry’s source for the increase in tuition and fees is the College Board’s annual report on college pricing trends. Not coincidentally, this same source also describes the falling net price of college.

“College Tuition Has Increased 46 percent Since Bush Took Office, Largest Four Year Increase on Record,” the Kerry campaign has announced. It estimates that this increase “has priced an estimated 220,000 students out of four-year public universities.”

Kerry makes interesting use of the College Board data (and not just because of his curious assumption that the president controls what the states decide to charge for tuition at the public universities). The real increase (in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation) in tuition for four-year public universities since 2000 is in fact the largest as recorded by the College Board but that record is just shy of three decades long. But the real increase was not 46 percent, but 35. Kerry is therefore using the nominal increase (current dollars, not adjusted for inflation) to base his arguments upon likely because it’s more sensational-sounding. The nominal increase is not the largest on record; in fact, four-year increases in the early 1990s and early 1980s bested those marks for the Bush years.

The real increase is more important, and since the Bush years have witnessed the largest four-year increase in the last three decades, does that mean Kerry’s right that it “has priced an estimated 220,000 students out of four-year public universities”? Not at all.

After all, the College Board report, Kerry’s source, also discusses the “net price” of college after factoring in grant aid and tax benefits. In fact, in terms of net prices, the situation is better now for the college-bound than they were a decade ago (which, for those keeping score on the presidential gotcha watch, would be under the Clinton administration).

As the College Board’s press release accompanying its report puts it: “In 2003-04, the amount the average student actually paid for a public four-year institution, after receiving grant aid and education tax benefits, was about $1,300 per student. After adjusting for inflation, this is less than students paid a decade earlier.”

Specifically, the net price for public four-year institutions is $200 less (in 2003 dollars) now that in was in 1994-95. Back then, the net price of attending a public four-year institution was $1,500 per student, and the net price of attending a public two-year institution was $400 per student.

Incidentally, the net price of attending a public two-year institution is now minus $400 it slipped into “negative pricing” (scorekeepers take note) during Bush’s first year in office, 2001-02.

Of course, smaller-government types will grouse over such statistics. By all means do. Those who argue for making the public responsible for lowering the “burden” of college costs on public-college students inevitably state that (1) college degree-holders have much higher lifetime earnings than those without, and (2) it’s unfair to ask college students seeking these lifetime advantages to risk going into debt to finance it. In so arguing, they run smack-dab into what the late chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michael Hooker, called a “reverse Robin Hood scheme” of having “the working class … subsidizing the education of the upper middle class.”

But that is an argument for another column. At issue here is Kerry’s message on college costs, which is a half-truth. The average sticker price of attending a public four-year college has sharply increased during the Bush years, but the net real price is down since the Clinton years.

Jon Sanders ( is a policy analyst for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.