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Naughty and Nice on College Price

June 30, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The “Hall of Shame” of college pricing has been released: federally compiled lists of the country’s most expensive institutions and those who have raised tuition the most in recent years. Mandated by the 2008 renewal of the Higher Education Act, the Education Department lists were intended to embarrass colleges into reining in both their internal costs and the prices they charge to students.

The lists on the department's College Affordability and Transparency Center, 54 in all, are detailed, attempting to group institutions with their peers in nine categories (public four-year colleges, private four-year colleges, public two-year colleges and so on). In each category, the department created six lists: the most expensive and least expensive colleges, measured by the sticker price of tuition and fees; the most and least expensive net price (what students actually pay); and the percentage increases in sticker price and net price.

The 5 percent of institutions that increased tuition at the greatest rate, measured by either net price or sticker price, will have to explain their reasoning to the Education Department and form an internal task force to study quality and efficiency. The intent of Congressional proponents was that through greater transparency, including the lists and a “net price calculator” for each institution, the department could force colleges to keep price increases low or be held responsible for continuing to charge more.

But the reasons for rapidly increasing tuition or net prices vary, including shrinking state budgets (for many public institutions) and a greater demand for financial aid due to the recession. Even before the lists were released Thursday morning, the institutions on them had their explanations ready.

"Every institution that shows a large percentage increase will have explanations for why it happened," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "They’ve had to explain this to their trustees, to their student body, to their alumni. They probably had to explain it to local media. They’ll be able to do this."

The lists could be helpful to prospective students and their parents looking at colleges, higher education advocates said. But they also might prove to be simply too much information for consumers to absorb, giving an inaccurate picture based on a small snapshot of data.

“At the end of the day I think it’s good for consumers to have this sort of information,” Hartle said. “I just hope it’s not too complicated to wade through.”

For even casual observers of higher education rankings, some of the lists will not come as a surprise. The "most expensive colleges in America" lists have been a staple of news organizations, and most on the department's list of the most expensive four-year, private, nonprofit colleges have appeared in similar listings. (Five liberal arts colleges top the list, because they included room and board along with tuition and fees, which was not required and bumped their prices to over $50,000.)

Measured on tuition and fees alone, the most expensive four-year private institution was Sarah Lawrence College, at $41,968. Karen Lawrence, the president of Sarah Lawrence, has defended the college's top position on similar lists, arguing that robust financial aid policies and a unique, if costly, experience mean the college provides value for the money.

In other categories, such as price increases at public institutions, the results are predictable even if less ingrained in the public consciousness: public institutions in budget-strapped states have charged some of the highest tuition, and seen some of the biggest increases, in recent years. Pennsylvania State University was the most expensive four-year public college or university, with tuition and fees set at $14,416 for in-state residents, and the university's satellite campuses dominated the list of most expensive publics.

Several of the biggest rates of increase in tuition prices at public institutions occurred on California State University campuses: tuitions there increased between 38 and 47 percent from the 2007-8 academic year to 2009-10. (Some of the system's campuses, including East Bay, Fullerton, Channel Islands and Bakersfield, also saw among the largest increases in net price.)

During the same time period, the system lost more than $1 billion in state funding, said Michael Uhlenkamp, director of media relations for the California State system. "The increase in our tuition over the past four or five years has matched the volatility of the budget," Uhlenkamp said. "We’ve been forced to turn around and ask students to make up some of that revenue."

The different metrics meant that some colleges appeared both on the "least expensive" lists for their sectors, considered a badge of honor, and the lists of those increasing tuition at the highest rates. Few of the private nonprofit universities that will have to answer to the department on the rate of their tuition increases are the expensive, elite institutions commonly mentioned in discussions about high college prices. Many are small, even obscure, colleges whose tuition rates in 2007-8 were low, so that an increase that would be slight at a more expensive institution loomed large in percentage terms.

At least one college, Our Lady of Holy Cross, in Louisiana, has argued that its listed increase in net price of more than 500 percent is based on incorrect data. The institution's president, Rev. Anthony J. De Conciliis, said its officials were trying to figure out why the department's data showed its net tuition rising from $428 in 2006-7 to $2,874 in 2008-9. (Department officials say they communicated with colleges while compiling the lists and gave them an opportunity to correct errors.)

Officials at the University of Hartford, which is listed as increasing its net price by 162 percent, are also disputing the listing, saying they believe that the 2006-7 figure was underreported and made the increase seem larger than it actually was. Tuition increased only 3 percent each year, and financial aid increased along with it, Walter Harrison, the university's president, said in an e-mail message Wednesday night.

Wells College, which topped the list of sticker price increases with a 67 percent tuition increase, said the figure was the result of a massive one-year increase due to a change in university policy. In 1999, the college decreased its tuition price by more than $5,000, and increased it by about 5 percent each year thereafter, said Ann Rollo, the college's vice president for communications and college relations. In 2009, college officials reconsidered, realigning the college's tuition with peer institutions -- where it would have been without the 1999 policy change.

"We're just caught in that awkward moment," Rollo said, adding that the overall intention of the lists -- greater transparency -- is a valuable goal.

"It’s a great effort," she said, echoing officials at other listed colleges who struck a similar note of praising the lists in theory but disputing their place on them in practice. "But unfortunately, it doesn’t quite tell our story this year."

 

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