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PAGE ONE Economics
the back story on front page economics

NEWSLETTER

January ■ 2014

The Rising Cost of College:
Tuition, Financial Aid, and Price Discrimination
Scott A. Wolla, Senior Economic Education Specialist
“The fact is, college has never been more necessary, but it’s also never been more expensive.”
—President Barack Obama, August 22, 20131
The cost of college tuition has been in the headlines frequently in recent years. Conventional
wisdom says the cost of a college education is rising—but is it really? The “sticker price” for a
college education has risen three times faster than the inflation rate since 1978. However, when
we adjust for inflation, expressing the cost in terms of constant dollars, and account for financial aid (which reduces the overall cost), average tuition and fees have remained effectively
unchanged. For example, the College Board reports that average tuition and fees increased from
$24,070 for the 2003-04 school year to $30,090 in 2013-14, but the average net tuition and fees
(after financial aid) actually decreased from $13,600 per year to an estimated $12,460—a reduction of $1,140 over 10 years (in 2013 dollars).2 Why the difference? The textbook explanation
falls under the heading “price discrimination.”

What Is Price Discrimination?
Price discrimination is the practice of selling the same good or service at different prices
to different customers. It occurs in imperfectly competitive markets3 when producers sell their
product to buyers at a price that reflects their willingness to pay. For example, if you owned a
business, you would likely prefer to sell your goods to each individual buyer for the highest price
each buyer would be willing to pay. Unfortunately, this would require you to read consumers’
minds and see inside their wallets. In the case of price discrimination, sellers infer consumers’
willingness to pay a certain price by other means.
A simple example of price discrimination is the price of seeing a movie. At the theater ticket
counter, you might notice that different groups of people (seniors and students) pay different
prices. Why? Theaters realize that seniors and students (on average) have less disposable income
and are likely to be very price conscious. As a result, they may choose not to see a movie at the
full price. Offering a lower price to these groups gives theater owners the benefit of charging
some moviegoers the higher (sticker) price without excluding less-affluent consumers, thereby
filling theater seats that might otherwise be left empty. Of course, seniors and students benefit
by seeing a movie they might not otherwise see.
Sellers who price discriminate must overcome a few obstacles. First, sellers do not know
how much each buyer is willing to pay, so they must find a way to infer this information. For
our movie example, sellers (the theater owners) infer willingness to pay through age demographics and student status. Second, sellers need to establish a method that prevents all con-

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Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

NEWSLETTER

sumers from paying the lower price. Movie theater owners might ask seniors and students to
present identification to verify their age or student status. Finally, sellers must be able to prevent
arbitrage, which means they must prevent consumers who buy an item at a lower price from
reselling it at a higher price. Because moviegoers pay the ticket price as they enter the theater,
movie tickets cannot be easily resold to other moviegoers.

How Do Colleges Practice Price Discrimination?
The price of tuition is clearly published on the website of nearly every college, but individual
students often pay very different prices at the same institution. Colleges price discriminate by
means of financial aid, which allows the college to subsidize the cost of college, essentially offering a discounted price to students who are less able or unable to pay full tuition. Colleges can
infer willingness to pay from the detailed financial aid documents filed by families in the college
application process. And because each financial aid package is individualized, the college can
ensure that all students do not pay the lower price. Further, because students cannot resell their
college education, there is no risk of arbitrage. In fact, for many students, earning a degree from
one of the world’s finest universities might be less costly than a degree from their local state
college. In 2012, financial aid recipients at Harvard University paid an average of $12,000 toward
tuition, room, board, and fees—receiving $41,000 in grants—and families earning less than
$65,000 per year paid zero.4 Of course, gaining admission to Harvard is very difficult; only 6
percent of applicants were accepted in 2012.

Average Net Price for Full-Time Students at Private Institutions Over Time

NOTE: The published average price for tuition and fees has increased 69 percent since the 1993-94 school year, while the
average net price for tuition and fees has risen only 22 percent (adjusted for inflation).
SOURCE: Baum, Sandy and Ma, Jennifer. Trends in College Pricing 2013. New York: The College Board, p. 21. ©2013 The
College Board; http://www.collegeboard.org.

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NEWSLETTER

What’s the Bottom Line?
Price discrimination allows colleges to charge high tuition prices to those willing and able
to pay without excluding less-wealthy students from the higher education market. Are there any
downsides to this approach? Of course, the higher tuition prices paid by middle- and upperincome families subsidize the lower tuition prices paid by low-income families. As the gap
between the sticker price and the discounted price paid by low-income students grows, the
burden is increasingly shifted to wealthier families. If this trend were taken to its end, only the
very rich would pay the full price; other families would be offered the financial aid “discount.”
But as economist Herbert Stein once said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”5
Following Stein’s reasoning, some small private colleges are realizing the downside of their
higher stated tuition prices as students experience sticker shock and look elsewhere. As a result,
more than a half dozen private colleges recently reduced their sticker prices and also the amount
of financial aid to students, hoping that the lower price will make their colleges more attractive
to prospective students.6

Conclusion
Price discrimination allows colleges to charge many different prices for essentially the same
service. This practice benefits students from low-income families. But, there is no free lunch:
The cost burden has become increasingly progressive as wealthier families are paying more for
education and subsidizing needier students. What’s the lesson for prospective students? Select
the school of your choice and apply for financial aid; your net price might be lower than you
expected. ■
NOTES
1 Flatley, Daniel. “President Obama Introduces Proposal to Make Higher Education More Affordable at Syracuse High School.”
Watertown Daily Times (NY), August 23, 2013; http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/article/20130823/OGD/708239805.
2

In this calculation, inflation is measured by the consumer price index and tuition figures are the published prices of private
institutions. See Baum, Sandy and Ma, Jennifer. Trends in College Pricing 2013. New York: The College Board, 2013;
http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/published-tuition-and-fees-net-tuition-and-fees-and-room-andboard-2012-dollars-full-time. Financial aid data for 2013-14 are not yet available, so we use preliminary estimates here.
3

Price discrimination is possible only in imperfectly competitive markets, which are markets where sellers have some control
over the market price of the product. This is not possible in perfectly competitive markets where there are many buyers and
sellers and no individual seller is large enough to influence the market price; these firms sell their products at the price determined in the broader market.

4 “Record

for Financial Aid.” Harvard Gazette, March 26, 2012;
http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/03/record-for-financial-aid/.
5
6

Stein, Herbert. What I Think: Essays on Economics, Politics, & Life. Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1998, p. 32.

Korn, Melissa. “Colleges Try Cutting Tuition—and Aid Packages: Administrators Believe Lower Sticker Prices Will Attract More
Students.” Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2013;
http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303643304579107683540651404.

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NEWSLETTER

RELATED RESOURCES
Dai, Emily. “Student Loan Delinquencies Surge. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Inside the Vault, Spring 2013;
http://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/itv/articles/?id=2348.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Econ Lowdown. “College 101 Infographic”;
http://www.stlouisfed.org/education_resources/college-101-infographic/.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Econ Lowdown. “Personal Finance 101 Conversations”;
http://www.stlouisfed.org/education_resources/personal-finance-101-conversations/.
Wolla, Scott A. “Investing in Yourself: An Economic Approach to Education Decisions.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Page
One Economics Newsletter; February 2013; http://research.stlouisfed.org/pageone-economics/uploads/newsletter/2013/
PageOne0213_Investing_in_Yourself_Human_Captial.pdf.

GLOSSARY
Arbitrage: The simultaneous purchase and sale of a good in order to profit from a difference in price.
Price discrimination: The practice of selling the same good or service at different prices to different customers.
Willingness to pay: The maximum amount that a buyer will pay for a good or service.

Page One Economics Newsletter from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis provides an informative, accessible economic essay written by our economic
education specialists, who also write the accompanying classroom edition and lesson plan. The newsletter and lesson plans are published 5 times per
year: January, March, May, September, and November.
Please visit our website and archives http://research.stlouisfed.org/pageone-economics/ for more information and resources.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve System.


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