Still, the sticker price is painful for families with stagnant incomes following a lengthy economic slump. The nearly 5-percent increase brings the average to $8,655. Room-and-board charges also grew, raising the full cost for students living on campus to $17,860.
According to the annual figures released Wednesday by the College Board, only about one-third of full-time students pay that published price. Factoring in grants and tax credits, the estimated net price remains considerably lower than the list price: about $2,910 for tuition at public four-year universities, and $12,110 including room and board.
However, as student aid from Washington ebbs, real costs for students have now jumped up two consecutive years.
The report shows list prices at private colleges remain substantially higher at about $39,518 on average, including room and board. Though the previous three years saw net prices at private colleges decline, this year's net tuition and fees increased about $780. Including room, board and aid, the typical student at a private college is paying $23,840.
At public two-year colleges, tuition and fees jumped $172 to $2,959. On average, those costs are entirely covered by aid.
Bottom line - the latest numbers send mixed signals. They highlight that higher education is devouring an ever-increasing share of family incomes, which are lower than a decade ago. However, the figures can also signal the break of trends in costs, borrowing and student aid, according to report co-author Sandy Baum of the College Board and George Washington University.
Overall, prices are up this year, but not nearly at the rate of the past two years. Enrollment has leveled off, after surging nationally for several years following the economy collapse in 2008. Also, federal aid and student borrowing are on the decline.
The reason for this could be debt aversion, more parents employed or a decline in enrollment overall, particularly at for-profit colleges, where students typically borrow more than at other types of schools.
The figures come as the two presidential candidates regularly lament the rising costs of college, with President Barack Obama saying the broad expansion of federal student aid during his term has helped cushion the blow from sharp funding cuts from the states. His Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, argues increased aid from Washington has encouraged colleges to charge more.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.