Note: Net cost of attendance is the published cost of attendance less subsidies. Data: CollegeBoard; Graphic: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Here’s something you might think you know: that the cost of going to college has been rising much faster than inflation for many years.

  • In reality, tuition do not have increased in real terms. For private four-year colleges, they’re actually down.

Why is this important: President Biden’s decision to write off billions of dollars in student debt inevitably raised the specter of college cost inflation.

  • Now that this precedent has been set, there has been concern (or relate to trolling) that colleges will feel free to raise their tuition, on the grounds that anyone who takes out a loan to pay that tuition will get a significant portion of their debt forgiven anyway.

The big picture: The amount Americans pay for tuition is ultimately determined by the rules of supply and demand. Right now, thanks to overbuilding, a declining birth rate, and a drop in the number of foreign students, supply is significantly higher than demand, which means flat or falling prices.

  • Total freshman enrollment in 2021 was 2,116,631 students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. That’s nearly 20% less than the 2,592,703 freshmen who enrolled in 2015.

Between the lines: Don’t look at soaring official tuition fees to find out how much people are paying. Instead, look at the amount they actually pay, which is invariably lower.

  • Colleges have discovered that high tuition combined with a high “merit scholarship” is more attractive than lower tuition, so now almost everyone receives some form of financial aid.

By the numbers: Over the past 8 years, published tuition for a four-year private college, in 2021 constant dollars, has increased 9.4%, to $38,070, according to the College Board. If you include room and board, the increase was the same – 9.4% – but the total was $51,690.

  • However, if you look at how much students actually pay, after taking into account scholarships and other discounts, the total tear down slightly to $32,720 including room and board. This is the lowest number since the 2012-2013 school year.

The bottom line: Most private colleges – with a few high-profile exceptions – charge as much as they can afford, with or without the promise of possible future debt forgiveness.

  • Over the past decade, competition among colleges has kept prices from skyrocketing. Even a rational expectation of future debt relief should not fundamentally change this dynamic.

Go further: Axios’ Dan Primack explains why tuition fees are still objectively too high and what could bring them down significantly.