PBS Gives a Hyped View of College Costs

     “Off they go into the wild blue yonder; climbing high into the sun.” That’s what a recent PBS segment might have you thinking about “skyrocketing” college costs. But recent evidence showed that college cost growth is actually slowing.


     Despite the evidence to the contrary, the Oct. 27, 2006, PBS “Nightly Business Report” insisted college costs are flying high. A segment focused on alarmist statistics that failed to show the whole picture and never acknowledged the most up to date information on the topic – published just three days before in The College Board publication, “Trends in College Pricing 2006.”


     “Nightly Business Report” correspondent Darren Gersh spun the statistics to make things seem worse than they were. “The price of a public college education over the last five years rose an astounding 35 percent,” he told viewers.


     However, according to a recent Washington Post article, “the increase in tuition and fees at public four-year colleges, although still higher than the national inflation rate, slowed for the third year in a row.” Even with those increases, the state school annual tuition average remains at $5,836. 


     The October 25 Post article also explained that private school tuition has increased by only 11 percent across the nation in those five years. Nowhere in the segment did Gersh include data specific to the cost of a private school education.


     An October 24 press release from The College Board indicated that trends in college costs were overwhelmingly positive – further chipping away at Gersh’s negative outlook. Gersh didn’t reference The College Board’s report and failed to include that total student aid increased by 3.7 percent to a total of $134.8 billion for the 2005-2006 academic year.


     Gersh even quoted education sector analyst Kevin Carey who blamed college rankings for part of the problem. Carey claimed that annual rankings published by U.S. News & World Report downgraded colleges that spent less per student. However, neither Gersh nor Carey acknowledged that the magazine includes a “Best Value” section in its annual rankings.


     The segment was titled, “The cost of college bucks the principle of supply & demand.” The label was clever, but even that claim didn’t hold up for the entire show. Near the end of the segment Gersh quoted Brian Kelly, executive editor of U.S. News & World Report, when he said, “Kelly says college costs are rising because there's so much demand to educate the children of the Baby Boom generation.” That certainly sounds a lot like processes of supply & demand at work.


     Buried at the very end of Gersh’s pessimistic segment was one glimmer of hope. It turns out that “on average, a college grad earns $23,000 a year more than non-grads.” This means that the average state school grad is able to earn back their tuition costs in a little more than a year. Then they get to enjoy increased earning power for the rest of their professional lives.