Online tool allows students to identify highest and lowest priced US institutions

By Mansoor Iqbal, Education Writer

The US Department of Education has made a new online tool available with which students can identify the most expensive and the cheapest colleges in the country. The College Affordability and Transparency Centre allows users to generate reports showing the institutions which charge the highest and lowest tuition fees, and the ones with the highest and lowest net prices – the average cost of attendance (this is tuition plus other fees, books and supplies, and room and board), taking into account grants and scholarship aid.

The tool covers nine sectors in total, allowing separate reports to be generated for public, private not-for-profit, and private for-profit four-year, two-year and less-than-two-year institutions. The most expensive 5% and the cheapest 10% are covered.

If only tuition fees are considered, the most expensive three public schools are Pennsylvania State University – Main Campus, the University of Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh Campus, and the University of Vermont, which charge $14,416, $14,154 and $13,554 respectively. The most expensive when other costs and aid are taken into account are the University of Texas Health Center at San Antonio, Saint Mary’s College of Maryland and Rowan University – $24,192, $23,902, and $21,468.

The cheapest tuition fees at public four-year colleges can be found at the Haskell Indian Nations University, Dine College and Brazosport College: $430, $805 and $1542. The cheapest net costs, however, are at Sitting Bull College, South Texas College and the University of Texas – Pan American, a very reasonable $938, $1,317, and $1,646 a year.

The private not-for-profits, unsurprisingly, are significantly more expensive if only fees are considered, with Bates College, Connecticut College and Middlebury College’s costing the most, at $51,300, $51,115 and $50,780 a year. It should be noted that all three of these include accommodation in their fees – the most expensive tuition without accommodation is the $41,968 charged at Sarah Lawrence College. When aid is taken into account, the most expensive trio – Art Center College of Design, The New School, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago – come in at a slightly more reasonable $39,672, $39,004, and $38,965, even after other costs are added on.

The lowest tuition in these colleges can be found at the free Webb Institute, the $876 a year Berea College and the $1,574 a year Sinte Gleska. In real terms, though, the Talmudical Academy – New Jersey ($469), the Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary ($1,876), and Turtle Mountain Community College ($2,031) are the easiest on the pocket.

Tuition-wise Sanford Brown College is most expensive of the private for-profits, with fees of $45,628, followed by Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and Collins College, which charge $38,200 and $34,063 respectively. At $49,321 Sanford Brown also comes second in real terms (the closest resemblance between tables can be found here), with only the Brooks Institute, at $51,223, costing more. The Art Institute of Charleston is third at $45,006.

But the American Public School System, the National American University-Ellsworth AFB Extension and the National College Lexington demonstrate the for-profits can be relatively affordable in terms of tuition, with fees of $6,000, $6,004, and $8,149. The National American University-Ellsworth AFB Extension is the cheapest in terms of net price by quite some way ($2,785), followed by Everest College-Springfield Campus ($6,860)and National American University-Colorado Springs ($9,814)

All of the above results only take into account institutions in the 50 states and not US territories, though the site does list them. The prices listed for public colleges pertain to in-state students. Tuition fees for international and out-of-state students will be significantly higher – maybe twice or even three times as much. Private college policies on tuition for international students vary, but international students can largely expect to pay around the same as locals, though may not be eligible for the full range of aid. Net prices are based on 2008/09 aid levels, tuition costs on 2009/10 figures.

In order to help you gain some perspective, the average costs across the US are also listed. For four-year colleges these are $6,397, $21,324, and $15,661 for public, private not-for-profits, and private for-profits in terms of tuition fees. In terms of net costs the average prices are $10,747, $19,009 and $23, 057.

Net price is something being taken very seriously by the US government, in a bid to increase transparency regarding the cost of higher education.  By October this year, all institutions will be required to feature a net price calculator on their website, so individual students will be able to work out precisely what they’ll be paying rather than relying on an average.

This concern with transparency is the result of rapidly increasing prices causing a great deal of concern in the US higher education market – particularly as not everyone is well versed in the financial aid available to them. As well as the top and bottom prices, the Affordability and Transparency Center also incorporates a feature with which you see which universities’ costs went up the most between 2007/09 and 2009/10. The universities whose costs went up the most have to justify the cost to the US Department of Education. It should be noted that, as a consequence of the financial difficulties of the past few years, much state funding has been lost over the time period covered by the tool. Some of the colleges that have increased their costs by the most remain amongst the cheapest by virtue of an extremely low starting point.

An interesting footnote to this comes courtesy of preeminent economist and president of Northwestern University, Morton Shapiro. He recently noted, in an interview with UK newspaper The Guardian, that the lower costs of public institutions could sometimes be misleading, as a comparative lack of resources, exacerbated by the financial slump, means that sometimes courses could take longer while you wait for access to facilities. This would mean that you could potentially have to add a year onto the cost of tuition – a year of lost wages and paying all the additional costs of being a student. Therefore, well stocked privates, though sticker and net price may well exceed those of publics, could in some occasions still work out costing around the same – or at least not too much more.

To view the calculator, which also includes a search tool for career and vocational programs, for yourself click here. It is linked to the US Department of Education’s College Navigator – a handy tool to help you find a college that suits your needs.

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