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Articles / Paying for College / The Quarter-Million Dollar Degree

The Quarter-Million Dollar Degree

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 7, 2016

What price college?

If you're a parent with a college degree and have a college-bound child, I'm sure that you have compared the cost of your education with that of your about-to-be-first-year daughter or son. The contrast is shocking.

You may be fortunate enough to have a child who has been awarded a significant amount of merit or need-based aid, which can dramatically reduce the impact of those twice-yearly invoices that always seem to arrive at the most inconvenient times. I refer to them as The Money Monster.

There seems to be no rational logic behind the incessant upward spiral of how much colleges are charging their students. In doing a bit of background research for my post today, I found some quantification of just how dramatic the cost rise of a college education has been. I have to admit that even I was surprised at the numbers, since I have been associated with the higher education scene for decades. My situation may be one of those “Can't see the forest for the trees" perspectives. (I never did grasp the full meaning of that saying.)

Anyway, consider this, from a U.S. News report:

Here's a quick breakdown of how schools in each category performed, looking at data reported by ranked schools that were included in editions of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings from 1995 to 2015:

  • The average tuition and fees at private National Universities jumped 179 percent.
  • Out-of-state tuition and fees at public universities rose 226 percent since 1995.
  • In-state tuition and fees at public National Universities grew the most, increasing a staggering 296 percent.

Despite experiencing the biggest increase, attending a public universityas an in-state student is still the most affordable four-year college option, on average.

Medical cost increases seem like pikers compared to college cost spikes. One has to wonder why.

Well, if you have been following Admit This! over time, you will have seen my articles touting the best and most luxurious college facilities around the country. Dorms that look like resort hotels aren't uncommon. Food courts that put mall facilities to shame and sporting arenas that look like Super Bowl sites have come to be expected by many undergraduates.

Take a look around campus these days. Fancy buildings designed by award-winning architects grace the atmosphere. Meticulous landscaping makes school grounds look like fabulous estates. One might suppose that these places are where thousands of young people congregate nine months out of the year to have a vacation … with some classes thrown in.

The downside of this opulence is that once a prospective student visits, s/he becomes smitten with the amenities; the academics and “fit" often play a secondary role. Thus, the “dream school" syndrome sets in and other possible education venues that have fewer, or less appealing, charms take a back seat, regardless of potentially better academics and/or fit.

So, how much are college really charging these days? Keep in mind that the so-called “sticker price" of a college isn't necessarily the price you'll pay, unless you're one of those unfortunate “full-pay" families that qualify for neither need-based or merit aid. If you are, then brace yourself for a Money Monster with several additional rows of razor-sharp teeth.

Here are some numbers, then, rounded up by Campus Grotto in their yearly compilation, under the title America's 100 Most Expensive Colleges. Here's a portion of the introduction:

The list of the 100 most expensive colleges by total cost (tuition + room & board + required fees) are all private and range from $56,000 all the way up to $65,000 per year. This is a significant jump in price from the average private university cost of $42,419 and (obviously) the average cost of attending a public in-state college at $18,943.

With most of these schools surpassing the $60K per year mark, incoming students can expect to see a price tag of over a quarter-million dollars for their 4-year degree when expected yearly increases in tuition are taken into account. When you consider only about a third of students complete their degree within four years, you can see how students can really rack up student loan debt.

While the majority of these colleges offer great financial aid packages to those with need, it's important to note there are still students who are paying these exuberant prices. At Duke University (#44 on this list), for example, about 50% of its students are paying the fully listed price of $60,533.

See what I mean about full-pay families? Without them, most colleges wouldn't be able to operate. This surprisingly high number of full-payers reminds me of what the professional assassin, Joubert, said to CIA operative, Joe Turner, at the end of Three Days of The Condor regarding clients who needed to have a particular person “disappeared." Joubert said, “There's always someone willing to pay."

And so it goes with these expensive schools. There are always families willing to pay. Many of the schools on the following list could fill their incoming classes with students from full-pay families, but that would be completely crazy. Thank goodness for financial aid.

Top 100 Most Expensive Colleges by Total Cost

CollegeTotal Cost
1. Sarah Lawrence College65,480
2. Harvey Mudd College64,427
3. New York University63,472
4. Columbia University63,440
5. University of Chicago62,458
6. Claremont McKenna College62,215
7. Fordham University – Lincoln Center62,192
8. Bard College62,012
9. Dartmouth College61,947
10. Scripps College61,940
11. Oberlin College61,788
12. Trinity College (CT)61,756
13. Pitzer College61,750
14. Bard College at Simon's Rock61,735
15. Northwestern University61,640
16. University of Southern California61,614
17. Haverford College61,564
18. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute61,529
19. Fordham University – Rose Hill61,472
20. Drexel University61,383
21. Johns Hopkins University61,306
22. Tufts University61,277
23. Amherst College61,206
24. Wesleyan University61,198
25. Carnegie Mellon University61,186
26. Vassar College61,140
27. Penn61,132
28. Williams College61,070
29. Occidental College60,972
30. Cornell University60,964
31. Connecticut College60,895
32. Tulane University60,861
33. Eugene Lang College (The New School)60,852
34. Franklin & Marshall College60,799
35. Georgetown University60,768
36. Brandeis University60,750
37. Bates College60,720
38. Hampshire College60,715
39. Barnard College60,700
40. Boston University60,694
41. University of Rochester60,668
42. Boston College60,622
43. Southern Methodist University60,586
44. Duke University60,533
45. Pomona College60,532
46. The George Washington University60,460
47. Washington University in St. Louis60,355
48. Bennington College60,310
49. Union College (NY)60,240
50. Stevens Institute of Technology60,168
51. Colgate University60,145
52. Bucknell University60,140
53. Carleton College60,102
54. Pepperdine University60,082
55. Hobart and William Smith College60,034
56. St. Lawrence University59,972
57. Hamilton College59,970
58. Reed College59,960
59. Skidmore College59,942
60. Bryn Mawr College59,890
61. Yale University59,800
62. Smith College59,674
63. Dickinson College59,664
64. Babson College59,614
65. Swarthmore College59,610
66. Bowdoin College59,568
67. Colby College59,500
68. University of Notre Dame59,461
69. Brown University59,428
70. Olin College59,225
71. Middlebury College59,160
72. Lafayette College59,155
73. Wellesley College59,038
74. St. John's College (MD)58,896
75. Kenyon College58,890
76. Wake Forest University58,838
77. Gettysburg College58,820
78. Harvard58,607
79. Wheaton College (MA)58,511
80. Stanford University58,388
81. Villanova University58,244
82. MIT58,240
83. Vanderbilt University58,220
84. St. John's College (NM)58,208
85. Davidson58,146
86. Chapman University58,048
87. College of the Holy Cross58,042
88. Emory University57,768
89. Macalester College57,691
90. Ursinus College57,580
91. Northeastern University57,490
92. University of Richmond57,470
93. Providence College57,383
94. Drew University57,366
95. Worcester Polytechnic Institute57,304
96. Colorado College57,162
97. University of Miami57,034
98. Fairfield University56,960
99. Loyola University Maryland56,880
100. Denison University56,850

[Data compiled by CampusGrotto.com]

Shocked? You should be.

Keep in mind that the costs cited above are for just one academic year. There's no guarantee that the schools on this list will assure you a four-year degree. It's possible that a fifth year (or, perish the thought, even more time) may be required due to uncompleted graduation requirements, illness, or other extenuating circumstances. Add more Money Monster teeth!

If you can gather your wits in the face of these numbers, take Campus Grotto's advice, as I have mentioned in previous posts here:

To get a better understanding of what you will actually be paying, be sure to use net price calculators that each school provides on their website. These typically take about 10-15 minutes to complete, but can provide a more realistic figure of what you can expect to pay. (For a complete list of colleges and links to their net price calculators visit NetPriceCalculator.com.)

Happy check writing!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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