updated 10/23/2007 3:05:25 PM ET 2007-10-23T19:05:25

To no one's surprise, the College Board reported on Oct. 22 that tuition at public and private colleges for the 2007-08 academic year continued to outpace inflation. But this year adds a new wrinkle — how the recent market turmoil will affect college endowments.

For some of the priciest schools, the above-average investment returns in recent years — as the markets boomed and hedge fund investments soared — have helped take the edge off upward pressure on tuition. If those returns suffer, those relentless tuition bills could edge even higher.

For example, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the endowment — worth about $3 billion — contributed about $125 million to the school's operating budget in academic year 2006-07, paying for programs, financial aid, and endowed chairs for faculty, among other items, says Michael Schoenfeld, Vanderbilt's vice-chancellor for public affairs. "It lowers the cost of tuition, it's a fairly simple transaction," Schoenfeld says. "If we didn't have the payout from that endowment, the cost of educating students would not go down. It would have to be replaced somewhere else."

The majority of endowment funds are concentrated at a small number of elite institutions in the public and private sector, with the wealthiest 10% of colleges and universities holding the most assets, according to the College Board. Schools such as Harvard and Yale have multibillion-dollar endowments that are so high that some members of the Senate Finance Committee called last month for the schools to use more of that money to reduce soaring tuition costs.

Tuition hikes
Anyone with college-age kids knows why costs are a hot-button issue. This year's College Board report shows hikes of more than 6% in tuition and fees for both public and private colleges. The increases are consistent with last year's, though the rate of increase at four-year public colleges is the lowest in five years. While the figures for tuition fees are the "sticker price" of a school, the cost of room and board and financial-aid grants means that what students actually pay is often much different.

The rising costs are driven by a variety of factors, from a slowdown of growth in the student financial-aid sector to flat or insufficient state funding at public colleges, said Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst at the College Board, during a press conference held in Washington, D.C., to release the findings. "There is no startling piece of information, but the data we have this year does confirm that the average price of college is continuing to rise more rapidly than the consumer price index and more rapidly than the average prices in economy," Baum said.

Four-year public colleges have taken the hardest hit, with the rate of growth in tuition and fees this decade the highest it has been in 30 years. The average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges for the 2007-08 academic year are $6,185, up $381 (or 6.6%) from last year, the College Board said. Those numbers don't include room and board and other expenses, which add about $7,404 to the bill.

The consumer price index for all urban consumers rose 2.8% between September, 2006, and September, 2007.

Costs at private universities saw similar increases to those at four-year public schools. Tuition and fees for this school year averaged $23,712, a $1,404 (or 6.3%) increase over last year. University officials cited rising utility rates, health care, and workers' compensation costs among the reasons for the hikes.

This is the first year that the College Board included in its report a chart with the overall endowment assets of colleges and universities. The endowment is an important figure to keep in mind when looking at tuition because colleges tend to spend 4% to 6% of their endowment earnings as part of their annual budget, said Baum. Private four-year colleges and universities tend to have the lion's share of endowment funds, with overall endowment assets of $82,700 per full-time student, while public four-year colleges and universities have about $13,800 per student.

Thirty-one private colleges have endowments of at least $1 billion, while 1,486 others have endowments of about $13 million, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges & Universities (NAICU).

Many of these schools use their endowment earnings to cover the cost of grants to students, money that has become even more important as federal grant aid is waning, according to David Warren, president of the NAICU. For example, the inflation-adjusted number for Pell Grants — a federal grant program funded by the U.S. Education Dept. — in academic year 2006-07 was $12.8 billion, down from $13 billion five years ago, Warren notes.

Offsetting costs
With less federal grant aid, public colleges and universities turn, in part, to their endowments to offset the cost of tuition for students, a factor that plays less of a role at public universities, where a bulk of their operating funds come from state appropriations. Schools also are looking at cost cuts and other sources of revenue to keep tuition from rising even further.

"Certainly for some institutions that do have a significant endowment, that endowment does play a large role in subsidizing the price that students pay," says Donald Heller, an associate professor and senior research associate at Pennsylvania State University's Center for the Study of Higher Education. "Without that endowment, students would be paying a lot more than they actually are."

Still, the fluctuations of the stock market are unlikely to have an impact on tuition costs at private colleges unless there is a continued economic downturn, Heller notes. Most institutions try to minimize the fluctuation in their endowment value by insulating their assets as much as possible from the ups and downs of the stock market, investing them in hedge funds and other vehicles — though it's not clear yet whether the subprime crisis is affecting college endowment holdings in those areas.

"The reality is in the short-term, a downturn in the stock market or other markets will have relatively little impact on the operating budget of a university," Heller says. "It will take a number of years of downturns before we start to see an impact."

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