A former president of an Ivy League college once equated the increasing cost of college with the rising price of a new Chevy. Though accurate then, as far as rate of increase was concerned, his analogy was deeply flawed.

If you are like most Americans, you buy a car, drive it around, and trade it for another every couple of years. You keep a college education for a life time.Annual reports of tuition increases are misleading. News reports focus on the price, not the net cost to consumers. As the College Board's annual tuition survey points out, in 1991 tuition and fees at private colleges increased 7 percent to an average of $10,017. At public colleges, tuition rose at a more rapid rate, 12 percent, to a new average of $2,137.

Taken alone, reports of tuition increases feed misperceptions about the actual cost of higher education. Such reports lead the public to believe that college costs are rising at a rate that will place higher education out of reach for most people.

But the sticker price of college is much higher than what most families and students actually pay.

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the net cost of a higher education to families is about 80 percent of the sticker price. On average, just under half of all full-time college students receive some form of financial aid.

The average aid award is about 50 percent of the sticker price. Today, loans make up half of most aid awards.

Reports of increases in sticker price also lead the public to question the worth of a college degree. For instance, a 1989 Gallup survey of 1,253 American adults found that more than half of those questioned say that the value of a college education is equal to or less than what a person pays to go to college.

The facts prove otherwise. According to Frank Balz at the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities, college graduates will earn some $600,000 more in their lifetimes than will those with only a high school education.

Ed Ewlniak, a statistician with the Census Bureau, points out that not only are earnings from salaries, wages and self-employment higher for people completing four years of college, but total income, which includes interest income and other benefits, is also higher.

As an economist, I can point to other financial rewards as well. According to a survey of benefits compiled by American College Testing, college graduates tend to have a longer and more productive worklife than grads.

They are three times as likely as non-college grads to have executive or managerial jobs and nearly 10 times more likely to hold professional positions.

College grads are more apt to have employer subsidized health insurance and pension programs than non-college grads, and they tend to practice better health habits, live longer and have a greater sense of well-being.

In every sense, a higher education is a good investment. It's good for the individual, good for their communities and good for the country.

(Thomas A. Manion is president of St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis.)