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College tuition costs climbing again this fall

NATIONWIDE — College tuition costs shot up again this fall, and students and their families are leaning more on the federal government to make higher education more affordable in tough economic times, according to two reports issued Thursday.

At public four-year schools, many of them ravaged by state budget cuts, average in-state tuition and fees this fall rose 7.9 percent, or $555, to $7,605, according to the College Board’s “Trends in College Pricing.” The average sticker price at private nonprofit colleges increased 4.5 percent, or $1,164, to $27,293.

Massive government subsidies and aid from schools helped keep in check the actual price many students pay. But experts caution that federal aid can only do so much and that even higher tuition is likely unless state appropriations rebound or colleges drastically cut costs.

“Just when Americans need college the most, many are finding it increasingly difficult to afford,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

When adjusted for inflation, the tuition increases this fall amount to 6.6 percent at public four-year colleges and 3.2 percent at private ones, according to the College Board.

Many students are finding relief in expanded federal aid, including tax credits, veterans’ benefits and a record expansion of the Pell Grant program for low-income students. In 2009-10, 7.7 million students received $28.2 billion in Pell Grants – an increase of almost $10 billion from the year before, according to a companion College Board report, “Trends in Student Aid.”

Even so, the maximum Pell grant covers just 34 percent of the average cost of attending a public four-year college, down from 45 percent two decades ago.

For now, government subsidies and aid from schools are helping hold down net tuition and fees – the actual cost students pay when grants and tax breaks are factored in.

Estimated average net tuition and fees this fall at public four-year colleges were $1,540, while at private colleges they were $11,320. Both are up from last year, but below what students paid five years ago.

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