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Has the Cost of College Reached a Tipping Point?

Toronto — Almost 150 colleges charged $50,000 or more in tuition, fees, room, and board in 2012-13. That one-year price is pretty darn close to the median household income in the United States. So has the cost of college reached a critical tipping point?

That frequently asked question was the title of a presentation here on Friday at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

As people who’ve worked in admissions for a long time will tell you, it’s not a new question. There’s been some anxiety every time a price threshold divisible by $10,000 has been crossed. More than one conference attendee told me there’s no reason not to expect some colleges will charge $75,000 one of these years, and get away with it.

There is no single tipping-point price for higher education, said Craig Goebel, one of the panelists. Instead, each college is in a different position, said Mr. Goebel, who is a principal with the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm.

Each time he first sets foot on a campus that has asked his firm to determine whether or not it’s overpriced, Mr. Goebel said, “I have no idea” whether it is.

Part of what makes the question complicated is that colleges aren’t really presenting one single price. There’s the sticker price, the number they list. On just about every campus, not everyone is paying that amount; on some, hardly anyone is. So for most students, at least two dollar amounts come into play: The sticker price, which might determine whether or not a student will even consider a college, and the amount of scholarship money that the college eventually provides.

Families care about and respond to each of those numbers, but the ways in which price and aid affect the admissions decision are not monolithic. Colleges serve different student populations. And even within a single college’s pool, different types of families will respond to price and aid changes in different ways.

Each college, then, has to come up with a pricing strategy that works for it. And even that is just one part of appealing to students, said another presenter, Jamie Ealy, a managing associate with the Art & Science Group. “Cost,” he said, “is not the ultimate arbiter of enrollment decisions.” That means a college had better plan to do more than perfect its pricing to bring in the class.

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