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Utah tuition costs rise but still called a bargain

While tuition costs in Utah have outpaced the national average for several years, leaders in higher education maintain that students are still making a wise investment.

"It's not a secret that the tuition costs are going up, but at the same time, the quality of our education programs is definitely competitive, and I think we're still a bargain state if you compare us to other states in the region," said Amanda Covington, spokeswoman for Utah's System of Higher Education. "We used to be a low-tuition state. I wouldn't call us that anymore."

Utah's tuition has grown at a pace of 8 or 9 percent per year in the past five years, Covington said. Nationally, the price of college rose faster than the inflation rate this year, landing a 6.6 percent increase at four-year public schools.

The latest increases, reported Monday by the College Board, bring the average list price of four-year public universities to $6,185 this year, up $381 from 2006-07. At four-year private colleges, tuition and fees rose 6.3 percent to $23,712. Utah's average tuition and fees for two consecutive, full-time semesters falls just below $10,000, as reported by the Board of Regents.

Public two-year colleges — which educate about half of American college students — again got the best marks for keeping a lid on price increases. Their average price rose 4.2 percent to $2,361. Accounting for aid, their average net cost is only $320 per year.

"We are constantly scrutinizing our tuition costs to ensure that we're not pricing college outside the reach of students," said Deneece Huftalin, vice president of student services at Salt Lake Community College. She said community colleges have kept costs low in order to maintain the open-door, open-access vision they were founded on.

"We are very intentional about trying to keep our costs down, but sometimes that's hard on us," she said. "It's often a tricky balance between needing some things and wanting to improve in some areas or grow in some areas, but not wanting to do so on the backs of students."

The published price is not the real price for many students, thanks to financial aid, but the net price is rising, too. On average, accounting for grants and tax breaks, the net price for full-time students at four-year public universities this year is $2,580. That's about $160 more than last year.

The rate of growth in private borrowing slowed last year due to new rules in place, but for undergraduates, private borrowing still rose 12 percent to $14.5 billion.

To make up the difference, students typically borrow as much as allowed from the federal government but then turn to private student loans. A decade ago, nonfederal loans accounted for about 6 percent of student aid, but last year they amounted to 24 percent.

"College remains a great investment and college expenses have indeed outpaced inflation for a number of years, so it is not new information," said David Feitz, director of the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority.

"Even if the costs are increasing — for the average person — a college education is still the best investment they'll ever make in their entire life, even if they have to go in debt for it."

Saving for college is the best way to face up to the challenge of paying for it, but Feitz recommends going into it with a solid plan to pay back any borrowed expenses.

"Our highest-risk borrower is somebody who drops out of school, even if they had good intentions on going back to finish," he said.

Including room and board for students living on campus, charges for public four-year colleges were $13,589, or 5.9 percent higher than last year. At private four-year schools, average total charges come to $32,307.

However, the percentage of college-goers who pay such large sums is fairly small. Fewer than 10 percent of students even attend colleges with tuition and fees higher than $30,000, according to the College Board, and many of those students receive financial aid. About 56 percent of students at four-year colleges attend schools listing a price under $10,000, and about one-third attend schools charging under $6,000.

"We experience those same increases that other businesses and agencies experience across the board," Covington said.

Dealing with costs of providing health insurance to those employed, as well as the increasing costs of a growing information technology infrastructure, are reasons tuition keeps spiking, she said.

Utah, however, was recently ranked one of the most efficient states in which to obtain post-secondary education.

"I think we do very good for the students," she said. "We're in the student success business, and while we always have room to work and areas to improve on, we definitely offer a great education."

Contributing: Associated Press