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'Hall of Shame,' Again

June 28, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The Education Department has updated its annual list of the country’s most expensive colleges (by net price and by list price), and, as always, this year’s list contains familiar names.

Columbia University narrowly edged out Sarah Lawrence College -- a perpetual contender on the list, and one that has defended its high tuition -- for the most expensive tuition list price, at $45,290 in the 2011-12 academic year. Among four-year public colleges, the University of Pittsburgh surpassed Pennsylvania State University for the most expensive list price, at $16,132. And the most expensive net price (based on what students actually pay after financial aid) was the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, at $42,882, on a list dominated by colleges specializing in music and visual arts. These figures do not include room and board, books, or various fees, which at the most expensive private colleges can push a full year's sticker price above $60,000.

The lists, posted on the Education Department’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, are a sort of “hall of shame” intended to force colleges to be more transparent about both their list prices and the prices students pay after financial aid. The center offers nine lists in all, breaking colleges down by sector and differentiating between net price (the price students pay after grants) and sticker price.

They debuted in 2011, required by the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In the past, they’ve been greeted with some fanfare: press conferences from the Education Department touting increased transparency and objections from the named colleges about the lists’ flaws. Last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seized on the release of the list as an opportunity to criticize states for yanking support to higher education.

Colleges have criticized the lists, arguing that they oversimplify -- many factors are driving tuition increases, including shrinking state budgets at public institutions.

But the lists’ power appears to be fading, released with less fanfare and greeted with less media coverage than in the past. A Columbia University spokesman said the institution had received few media requests about their position on the list.

In response to the lists, Columbia pointed to its generous financial aid policies. ”A conversation about college costs must also include a conversation about financial aid and net price,” Robert Hornsby, assistant vice president for media relations, said in a statement. “As a result of our full-need financial aid program, Columbia has continued to attract among the most socioeconomically diverse student bodies among peer institutions. The university takes pride in its continued commitment to ensuring that students can attend Columbia regardless of their family's financial circumstances.”

While this is the third year the Education Department has updated the lists, another feature intended to promote transparency hasn’t materialized at all. Colleges increasing tuition the fastest are supposed to provide the department with an explanation of why their prices have climbed. But two years after the first lists were released, the department has yet to make those explanations public. A department spokesman said the delay was because it takes time for colleges to release the data and the department to process it.

This year’s colleges with the biggest tuition increases included South Texas College, where sticker prices more than doubled to $5,160 per year between the 2009-10 and the 2011-12 academic year. (The lists are all two-year comparisons.) But the biggest increase among four-year institutions was at the Moody Bible Institute, where prices increased more than fourfold -- climbing from $1,885 in 2009-10 to $10,526 in 2011-12.

Most Expensive Net Price: Four-Year, Private Nonprofits

Most Expensive Net Price: Four-Year Publics

Most Expensive List Price: Four-Year, Private Nonprofits

Most Expensive List Price: Four-Year Publics

 

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