FAYETTEVILLE -- An estimate of the true cost to attend the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville increased by about $700 for 2015-16, the most recent academic year with data available.
UA's average net price of $15,411 increased by 4.9 percent compared with $14,693 a year earlier, a steeper rise than the 3 percent tuition increase approved by trustees for the 2015-16 academic year.
The average net price takes into account additional expenses beyond tuition and fees while subtracting what students receive, on average, in governmental and institutional grant awards.
Three years of federal data for UA and other schools were updated earlier this month at collegenavigator.gov.
The estimated cost to attend UA was below that of similar large public schools in nearby states except at Louisiana State University and the University of Mississippi.
But for the three most recent years with data available, UA's average net price has climbed at a faster rate than the median income for Arkansas families.
"Everyone, I think, is concerned about affordability," said Suzanne McCray, UA's vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions.
For the 2015-16 academic year, she described an increase in housing costs and decreases in federal, state and institutional aid for many in-state students as reasons for the rising average net price. For 2015-16, UA published an estimated total cost of attendance of $23,506 for in-state students, while this fall the published estimate is $24,916.
The average net price calculation is defined by the federal government to only include first-year, in-state students.
McCray said students and parents can go to UA's website to get a feel for what their costs might actually be to attend the state's largest university.
"We have a net price calculator on our website so they can get a look at, prior to getting here, just what it is they will be responsible for paying for," McCray said. "And we want people to understand what it is, so they know coming in."
All colleges and universities receiving federal funding are required to have net price calculators on their websites, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
McCray said the average net price can fluctuate from year to year because incoming freshmen have different financial needs and different qualifications for merit awards.
For 2015-16, she said, UA gave out less institutional aid than the year earlier to students in the group used to calculate average net price.
McCray said the university estimates how many students will accept merit awards and enroll in a given year. But after a year like 2014-15 when more students who qualified for awards chose UA, less aid is typically given the following year "to maintain a manageable four-year rolling scholarship average," she wrote in an email.
McCray said students on average also received less federal and state aid, leading to the rise in average net price.
Average net price "is a helpful piece of information for students trying to evaluate their college options," said Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research with the nonprofit Institute for Higher Education Policy.
The group in March published a report stating that low- and moderate-income students can only afford to attend 1 percent to 5 percent of colleges. The analysis was based in part on net price and household income.
Voight said year-over-year changes provide a "snapshot" of information but that more years of data are needed to check for trends.
An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis found that while the average net price for UA increased by 6.5 percent from 2013-14 to 2015-16, the state's median family income increased by about 2 percent from 2013-15.
Family income estimates are published by the U.S. Census Bureau, with the 2015 median family income estimated to have been $51,782, plus or minus $323, up from the 2013 estimate of $50,759, plus or minus $417.
The average net price to attend UA increased to $15,411 from $14,466 over a similar time period.
"I think that's a really useful comparison to make, to look at net price versus family income," Voight said.
The collegenavigator.gov website also reports average net price by income. This is calculated for a different, though overlapping, group of students than the group used to determine average net price regardless of income.
Average net price by income is calculated for students receiving a certain kind of federal aid, known as Title IV aid, which includes federal loans. But the loan amount never figures into the expenses-minus-aid calculation.
For students from families earning $30,000 or less annually, the 2015-16 average net price of $11,501 reflected a 1.5 percent increase over the average net price of $11,335 in 2014-15.
The year-over-year percentage increase was smaller than for any other income group at UA.
Looking at three years of data, the average net price for the poorest students increased by 7.5 percent from 2013-14 to 2015-16.
McCray said in an email that the lowest-income students receive high levels of federal Pell Grant support, while others may receive less aid.
UA "has also been steadily shifting or adding scholarship funding for lower ACT students, and usually lower scores are associated with students from lower-income levels," McCray said.
Over three years, students in the $30,001-$48,000 family income group saw a 12 percent increase in average net price, which rose to $13,122 in 2015-16 compared with $11,721 in 2013-14.
For the same time period, students in the $48,001-$75,000 family income range saw a 10.7 percent rise in average net price, which increased to $16,793 in 2015-16 from $15,172 in 2013-14.
Voight said universities "have a big role to play here" in helping make college affordable for a diverse group of students.
"Institutions can set up their financial aid to be need-based and direct their aid to students who actually need that financial support in order to access college," Voight said.
Chancellor Joe Steinmetz has called for increasing need-based scholarships, and McCray described several programs aimed at helping low-income students, such as the Accelerate Student Achievement Program established last year for students in a 26-county area that includes the Delta region and eastern part of the state.
This year, UA announced a fundraising goal to establish 50 scholarships for the 2018-19 school year, with preference to be given to students who are the first in their families to pursue bachelor degrees. A student's financial need would be taken into account when giving out the Advance Arkansas scholarships.
Graph showing UA’s net price compared with peers
Voight said that in order for college to become affordable, states and the federal government must help. She said the federal government should continue to provide Pell Grant funding, and state financial support for higher education could lower the cost of college.
"We see a need for shared responsibility," Voight said.
Metro on 07/23/2017
Print Headline: Price measure shows UA costs' rise outpacing family incomes