WASHINGTON -- The second annual edition  of the Education Department’s lists of the country’s most expensive and least expensive colleges was released Tuesday. Like last year, there were few surprises.
Although Connecticut College dethroned Sarah Lawrence College for the dubious honor of highest sticker price among private institutions, in other ways little has changed from last year’s lists . State universities in Pennsylvania are still among the priciest public institutions in the nation. Private liberal arts colleges are still expensive. And state cutbacks have led to big increases in tuition across the country.
The lists are required by the Higher Education Act’s 2008 renewal, and are intended to provide students and parents with information on how college prices stack up while embarrassing colleges with the highest costs and biggest increases. Every year, the department publishes the colleges with the highest and lowest sticker prices, the highest and lowest net prices (what students pay, on average, after loans and grants), and the biggest increases in sticker and net price. Critics of the lists, including many institutions, argue that the lists lack context and are not a meaningful way to evaluate affordability.
This year, administration officials used the release of the lists less to shame individual colleges -- although Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out that some for-profit institutions now are twice as expensive, going by net price, as Harvard University -- than to criticize state cuts to higher education.
Public colleges and universities in Georgia, Arizona and California figured prominently on the list of the highest percentage increases in sticker price, as did colleges in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. (Increases in net price were not as concentrated in individual states, indicating that students at colleges where costs increased sharply also received more financial aid than in the past.)
“Quite frankly, we’re seeing some alarming trends,” Duncan said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, adding that state budget cuts were the most important factor in tuition increases in recent years and blaming legislatures and governors for cutting back on higher education. Public universities were frustrated with some of the rhetoric from the Obama administration a year ago that did not, state higher education officials said, acknowledge the relationship between cuts to appropriations and increases in tuition rates.
The most expensive colleges by sticker price are a mix of private liberal arts colleges and universities in major urban centers: Connecticut College, Sarah Lawrence (whose president has publicly defended  its high tuition), Columbia University, Vassar College and George Washington University. Tuition alone at those colleges during the 2010-11 school year ranged from $42,905 to $43,900.
By net price -- once grants and scholarships are taken into account -- colleges focusing on the arts were the most expensive: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago had the highest net price, at more than $40,000, followed by the California Institute of the Arts, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Boston Conservatory. Arts institutions note that they tend to provide instruction in very small groups, sometimes one-on-one, and that they can't avoid high labor expenses as a result.
While tuition at Connecticut College is high, when room and board and fees are taken into account, the college is not the most expensive in the country, said Deborah MacDonnell, the college’s director of public relations. A liberal arts education is expensive, and Connecticut College is generally in line with its peers, she said. And she pointed out that the college is not on the list of the most expensive institutions by net price.
“This kind of education that we offer is very personalized, and it may be a little more expensive, but our alumni agree it’s the best preparation for life, really, and personal and professional success,” MacDonnell said.
Two Pennsylvania universities -- Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pittsburgh -- topped the list for the most expensive public institutions by sticker price, and were among the most expensive by net price as well. The price reflects a decade of shrinking state funding and growing enrollments, said Geoff Rushton, a university spokesman for Penn State.
“Where we are now is at the same level [of state funding] we had in 1995, when we’re educating tens of thousands more students,” Rushton said, adding that the university has frozen employees’ pay and changed benefit packages in efforts to save money. “We’re just trying to balance the challenge of keeping the quality of education high, retaining staff and faculty and keeping tuition affordable.”
But colleges worry that prospective students might interpret the data differently -- overlooking the potential for financial aid packages, at Connecticut, or focusing on percentage increases. For the California State University system, the data are saying, “You used to be really cheap, your system got cut a billion dollars, and now you’re only kind of cheap,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, the system’s director of media relations, who said that despite recent steep tuition increases, the college is still a good value. The rankings system is not entirely fair, because it neglects that context, Uhlenkamp said.
“When you talk about anything that represents the last five years and refers to a percentage of increase in tuition, it’s going to reflect poorly on us based on the situation we’ve been in,” he said.