The College Board reported Tuesday that tuition prices at public four-year colleges are growing more slowly than they have in more than 30 years. Published tuition figures at these universities grew by 2.9 percent in the 2013-14 school year over the previous year, down from 4.5 percent growth the year before and a blistering 8.5 percent pace the year before that.
Of course, a bit of price inflation over time can be a good thing. But the growth in the price of a college education has grown much faster than prices in many other categories.
According to data from the Labor Department, the price index for college tuition grew by nearly 80 percent between August 2003 and August 2013. That is nearly twice as fast as growth in costs in medical care, another area widely recognized for fast-rising prices. It's also more than twice as fast as the overall consumer price index during that same period.
Still, it's important to note that the growth in college tuition has slowed. According to the College Board, this year's slowdown in public school tuition had a lot to do with state budgets slowly recovering.
"A number of states actually did not increase tuition and fees at all this year," says Jennifer Ma, an independent consultant for the College Board. "There are a couple of reasons for that, and one is that funding for higher education has improved in some states."
Ma points to California, where a strapped state budget led to vast tuition hikes in recent years. Over the last five years, California's four-year state schools have raised tuition and fees by 57 percent, but over the past year, the system has managed to cut its tuition and fees by 1 percent. That makes it one of 13 state school systems that lowered their tuition and fees over the past year. Other states where in-state tuition fell include Iowa, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Rhode Island.
Though tuition growth has outpaced overall price growth in the last decade, that growth has slowed in recent years.
What that might mean is that the growth in college tuition is shifting from "really fast" to "moderately fast." Still, a slowdown in published tuition costs doesn't necessarily mean students are paying less.
The College Board also reports that net prices – tuition minus financial aid and tax benefits – grew by 2.3 percent over the last year for students paying in-state tuition. At private schools, the jump was 4.4 percent.
And even if tuition costs are decelerating, they are still growing faster than household incomes.
Interestingly, while tuition prices have outstripped the costs of food and shelter, college students have seen skyrocketing price growth in one other place: the campus bookstore. The growth in textbook prices over the last decade has almost exactly matched the pace of tuition growth. In other words, students have one more kind of sticker shock to face, even after paying their tuition bills.