In 2nd Year of Rankings, Education Dept. Lists Cheapest and Costliest Colleges

June 12, 2012

The Education Department released Round 2 of its college-cost data on Tuesday, publishing lists of the most- and least-expensive colleges, by sector.

The lists, which Congress ordered up to educate consumers and embarrass colleges with high tuition, highlight institutions with especially high or low prices, or large price increases. Some lists look at overall tuition and fees, while others focus on net price, or the total cost of attendance minus grant aid.

Over all, the lists look a lot like last year's tallies. The most expensive private colleges, by tuition, are mostly elite institutions in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, with Connecticut College—at almost $44,000 a year­—moving up a spot to No. 1. Pennsylvania, which has seen significant cuts in higher-education spending under its current governor, continues to lead the nation in having some of the most expensive public institutions.

Deep budget cuts are also driving up tuition in other states. Over all, the average sticker price at four-year public colleges rose 15 percent over last year, according to the department. In some states, the spike was as high as 40 percent.

When student aid is taken into account, the elite private colleges look a bit better, while arts colleges appear a lot worse. Eight of the nation's most expensive private colleges are arts or music colleges, with net prices ranging from $36,121 to $40,654. The most expensive public institution, after aid is factored in, is the University of Guam, at almost $26,000, though the list is dominated by campuses in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

On the cheaper side are Florida's public colleges, which have historically been restrained by the state Legislature from raising tuition. That could soon change, however. Faced with severe budget deficits, Gov. Charlie Christ signed a law before he left office, in 2011, that will allow Florida's public institutions to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year until their cost reaches the national average.

Looking at net price, some of the best bargains are in Puerto Rico, which claims 11 out of the 65 cheapest public institutions, the same number as Florida. California, New York, and Texas each have six colleges on the list, and Washington State has seven.

Community colleges, meanwhile, are holding down costs despite steep budget cuts and surging enrollment. On average, their net price increased less than 1 percent, according to the department.

As was the case last year, Bible colleges and other religiously affiliated institutions account for a substantial share of the colleges with the largest percentage increases in net price. Yet they also continue to make up a sizable portion of the institutions with the lowest net prices.

This year, in addition to the list, the department is publishing tuition and net-price information for all institutions, broken down by sector. In a news release, the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said the lists and other data would help students and parents make "smart educational choices."

"Students need to know upfront how much college will actually cost them, instead of waiting to find out when the first student-loan bill appears," he said. "These lists are a major step forward in unraveling the mystery of higher-education pricing."

It's unclear, however, how much consumers are relying on the data, which is published only on a department Web site. According to Mr. Duncan, 75 percent of families who file applications for federal student aid apply to only one college—a statistic that suggests they're not shopping around nearly as much as the secretary would like.