01/11/2011 02:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Trends in College Pricing

If there's one thing I've learned as the president of the College Board, it's this: every person is born with the fundamental capacity to learn. The only question is whether that capacity is neglected or nurtured.

Unfortunately, even at the outset of the 21st century, lower income students remain underrepresented in higher education because of socioeconomic barriers like cost and unequal access to high quality schools. Five decades after the Supreme Court struck down "separate but equal," higher education remains a privilege -- one that often depends on a family's financial means. The sad irony, of course, is that the people who might benefit most from a good education are usually the people who face the greatest barriers to attaining a degree.

The College Board Advocacy & Policy Center recently published its annual Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid reports to investigate and assess the scope this problem. The reports found that during the past decade, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities rose almost twice as fast as those at private colleges. Over the same period, average household incomes have remained stagnant. Making matters worse was the disturbing drop in state spending on higher education -- a decline of 9 percent in 2008-09 and 1.3 percent in 2009-10.

The clear first step in alleviating this educational crisis is opening an honest discussion about college affordability. Truth be told, we've been having this discussion at the College Board for quite a while. The College Board has been a leading advocate for need-based financial aid for more than a decade, and not just because we recognize the financial and emotional benefits of nurturing a student's talent. We recognize that their contributions are essential to ensuring that America remains competitive globally.

We know that being more competitive means improving our college completion rate. America was once a leader in the number of citizens with college degrees, but recently we've slipped to 12th place among industrialized nations. If the path to global competitiveness is in fact paved with diplomas, we should all be focused on eliminating one of the greatest barriers to a college education: the cost.

Thankfully, the federal government has responded with record student aid in the form of Pell Grants and tax credits. In fact, last year saw the largest increase in the history of the Pell Grant program and resulted in $28.2 billion in federal Pell Grant aid for approximately 7.7 million students. This money has kept the net cost of a college degree (including tuition, fees, room and board) from rising as quickly as the sticker price, and I encourage students to pursue all available financial aid options.

The injection of federal dollars has been a big help, but there is much more to be done. We must make college more affordable by restraining growth in costs and prices, ensuring that available aid is used wisely and insisting that state governments commit to fully funding higher education.

Expanding access to college is a critical priority because barriers to higher education don't just stop individuals from reaching their full potential -- ultimately, they hold back the entire country.

In the past we could afford to neglect some of our diamonds in the rough because the United States was a superpower with unmatched resources. But the playing field has been leveled and our competitors are racing by. If we want America to reclaim its position at the head of the international class, it's time to fully commit ourselves to nurturing all of our talent, no matter where it might be hidden.