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College Admissions: The Real Cost of the Most Expensive Colleges

Monday, July 04, 2011


Last week the U.S. Department of Education unveiled a new Web site that provides information on the cost of U.S. colleges. The three most expensive colleges were all in New England. Bates, Connecticut College and Middlebury topped the list with an annual cost that exceeds $50,000. Often, this data sends shivers up the spines of parents and causes families to cross great colleges off their lists. This is a mistake. What these lists fail to take into account is that most of the seemingly “most expensive” colleges in the country are among the most generous with financial aid. And your net cost to attend one of these schools can actually be

less than your in-state public university.

Need and Merit Aid is Abundant

There are basically two kinds of college-based financial aid. The first is need-based aid, which is dictated by family income and assets. Among the colleges listed as the most expensive this year, 7 of the top 10 guarantee to meet 100% of demonstrated need, and the rest have historically met above 90% of need. These are wealthy schools that want to ensure they don’t miss out on smart, high achieving students who may be socio-economically disadvantaged. The College Board and other Web sites provide data on the amount of financial aid given out at each college. Remember that the Ivy League is also famous for structuring their tuition models based on income. So, if your family earns less than $60,000 a year, you don’t pay anything at Harvard, and many elite institutions have eliminated or minimized student loans. In the end, if you have need, what you pay at an elite college is likely to be very low.

The second type of financial aid is merit aid which is awarded based on grades, SAT scores and leadership skills. For exceptional athletes or special talent students (music, art, dance, theatre) there are additional scholarships. While about a dozen colleges in the U.S. don’t offer merit aid, most do. George Washington University, which came in at #8 on the federal government list of most expensive colleges, awards about 27% of students merit aid, and the average amount is just over $21,000 a year. Tulane ranks as the 15th most expensive college in the country, but a whopping 42% of students receive merit aid and the average award is about $22,000!

Net Price Calculators

Families will soon have a new tool to help them understand the real cost of college at each institution. The federal government is requiring that all colleges post a net cost calculator on their website by October 31, 2011. Many have already complied. The calculators take into account income, grades and other factors, and will give families an estimate of what the student can expect to receive in grants, loans, work study and other forms of financial assistance.

Sticker Price vs. Your Cost

The most important thing for families to know is that the sticker price of a college really doesn’t mean anything. You have to pull back the covers. In addition to the new net price calculators, financial aid officers at individual colleges are more than happy to answer your questions about what kind of aid is available and the amounts you are likely to receive. So, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask the tough questions at colleges before you rule them out.

Cristiana Quinn, M.Ed. is the founder of College Admission Advisors, LLC which provides strategic, college counseling and athletic recruiting services for students. www.collegeadvisorsonline.com.

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What are the justifications for high "sticker prices" tuitions that do not reflect the true tuition paid by most students and their families?

Two I have heard of are:

Prestige ... A higher tuition price allegedly creates a higher value perception and prestige perception among buyers. Do you buy this? is there any empirical data in support? Under what circumstances can a college, by upping its "sticker price" tuition, increase its "prestige perception" but not the number of qualified students applying? Or is this a contradiction?

Tax the rich ... Make the rich subsidize the needier. Full sticker price will be paid by richer students. The "extra money" (above real average tuition) will go toward more aid for needy students. If true, perhaps Fox News should get on this "unfair tax" on the wealthy.

Comment #1 by John McGrath on 2011 07 04


A lot of factors affect tuition, from professor salaries to sports team costs and even heating. If you notice, a lot of the colleges that are the most expensive are in cold climates. Colleges down south and out west are often less expensive. Endowment also plays a role.

I have seen far more families deterred by cost than I have seen attracted by cost.....so I am not sure the prestige argument holds up. It is an interesting question....one that is not easily answered.

Comment #2 by Natasha Betenoff on 2011 07 04

Colleges in Canada are really cheap, and they are in cold climates (with the exception of British Columbia). McGill, Toronto, others are excellent "buys." Canadian high school students are well prepared for college work, and on the whole are not resistant to leaning ("WIll it be on the test?") as are so many US students (despite paying high tuition for the classes they try to avoid or whose work/learning they want to minimize).

Comment #3 by John McGrath on 2011 07 05

Totally different system in Canada where most colleges are provincial (public) and heavily subsidized by the Canadian and provincial governments.

Comment #4 by Cristiana Quinn on 2011 07 05

Christiana Quinn ... I knew that the Canadian higher education system is very different (not completely different) from the US system (knowing US grads of McGill, Toronto, including family). Just wanted to bring up Canada as a provocation. You provided an excellent comment.

But at one time in the US we invested heavily in a fine, free or low cost public higher education system (family graduates from CCNY, others from UCal) because we knew our future depended on them and their ability to educate those from modest means. Our failure to invest in higher education is just another symptom of how privatization and a so-called market system can be dysfunctional and subversive of social justice. I believe in a market system but not for everything and certainly not the reckless rigged market run by Wall Street. ... To adapt an old saying (Poor Mexico, so close to the US, so far from God.), I keep thinking "Poor USA, its government so close to Mexico's, so far from Canada's."

Comment #5 by John McGrath on 2011 07 05

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