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Offering Some Perspective on the High Cost of College

Many families are experiencing sticker shock this month as they try to wrap their heads around the amount of tuition they will shell out next fall for college. At the most selective colleges for students paying full price, the total cost may top more than $230,000.

While the the outcry over rising tuition is loud, others are suggesting that some perspective is warranted.

The American Council on Education recently released a report, Putting College Costs in Context. While a degree from some schools can equal the price of a home, 45 percent of all undergraduates in 2011-12 attended community colleges, where the average published tuition for a full-time student is $2,963, and 39 percent attended public four-year colleges and universities with a price tag of $8,244. Just 16 percent went to private nonprofits, where tuition was $28,500 on average. These numbers, however, do not include room, board, books, and other living expenses.

The ACE report notes that last year $112 billion was available to students in federal, state, and institutional aid with grants and education tax credits. There are also billions in loans available, reducing the timeline for payment but not the total price tag.

Still, aid has indeed cushioned the rising cost of education for students. While published in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions were up 8.3 percent in 2011-12 over last year, the net price that students paid for college rose just 1.4 percent beyond inflation, according to trend reports from the College Board.

For many Americans, when student financial aid is factored into the equation, college is, indeed, affordable, writes ACE President Molly Corbett Broad in the introduction to the new report. Although she acknowledges that "affordable" does not mean inexpensive, and says colleges are looking for innovative ways bring down costs without sacrificing quality.

Still, Broad maintains the investment is worth it. "Whenever I look at the data surrounding college prices, as well as the personal and societal benefits of higher education, I am personally reassured of its value," she writes.

An article in The Atlantic puts the issue in some global context. What's More Expensive Than College? Not Going to College references the research by the International Youth Foundation chronicling high youth unemployment and lack of access in many regions to the most important means of economic mobility: education. The piece underscores the link between educational gains and productivity and income gains. "The highest-income countries have the highest rates of enrollment in secondary school and the smallest share of informal employment that is vulnerable to an economic downturn," writes author Derek Thompson. "There is a cost to not educating young people."

As U.S. students select where they study, there are ways to save money such as attending local colleges and graduating on time. A piece online in U.S. News and World Report, 10 Ways to Save on College Costs, is a good reminder that affordable avenues are available.

Still, students, parents, and politicians are clamoring for a halt to seemingly endless tuition hikes. Colleges are in a tough spot as state appropriations for higher education continue to plummet to a new low last year. But responding to the public's outcry, college affordability is high on the Obama administration's agenda. Students are rallying behind moves to keep loan interest rates from rising this summer. Calls for increased efficiency and lower tuition are likely to continue#&151;through the campaign season and beyond.

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