Via Matt Reed, I learned of an analysis by higher education policy analyst Robert Kelchen, who used data from the Department of Education to show that the annual rate of borrowing for undergraduate education (whether subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, or parental loans) has been decreasing, even as the amount of Pell grants given out has gone down and state legislatures have proven reluctant to hike higher ed spending.
If this is the case, why does the media constantly tell us that ever-spiraling college education costs are pushing more students into debt? If I had to guess, I'd guess that it has something to do with private colleges and universities, who notoriously jack up their "sticker price" and then give almost everyone some sort of scholarship, financial aid, or other discount. Never mind that net price hasn't budged much in comparison with sticker price.
The next question is why the media would nonetheless push this narrative? Well, first of all, the media loves a good story, and certainly nobody has ever reacted positively to even a small price increase. So it gets attention. Also, the sorts of people who write for certain media outlets tend to be in a certain socioeconomic class, a class that (1) will definitely not send their kids to public universities and (2) might actually be expected to pay something close to sticker price. If a NYT columnist gets sticker shock from the prices at Princeton these days, that's a national crisis!