College tuition is skyrocketing, isn’t it? Everyone knows this trend. Tuition increases at about double the rate of inflation. This makes for nice scare headline, every single year.

But the truth is actually a little more complicated. That’s because the official tuition is just the published cost of college. Thanks to financial aid, a whole lot of students and families really pay a lot less. According to a piece by by Jacob Goldstein at NPR, the average net price, what really people pay, is much lower. Check this out:


As Goldstein explains, “because the value of grants and scholarships has also grown, average net price has grown much more slowly. In fact, in the past five years, average net price at private colleges has actually fallen.”

This is an important thing to note; college prices, at least on average, are not going up nearly as quickly as journalists and pundits (myself included) often say.

That being said, it’s a pretty limited graphic, since it begins in 1996. Perhaps from year to year the price of college doesn’t go up much, but in a much larger historical perspective the cost is still increasing dramatically. Policymakers, who are themselves in their 50s and older, often don’t really understand this. That’s because they themselves attended college back when the annual costs (net and sticker) were in the threefigure range.

It’s also worth pointing out that the numbers in the image are adjusted for inflation. In an ideal world, or in a country decided to making higher education accessible, college tuition, at least for public colleges, wouldn’t increase at all over time.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer