By Brian Wingfield
College graduates today face a dismal job market and often carry with them thousands of dollars in student loan debt. And yet, the price tag for a year’s worth of study at America’s most expensive colleges is close to $60,000. Overall, tuition costs at private colleges are up 4.5% since last year.
For the 2010-2011 school year, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., charges undergraduates $57,556 for tuition, fees, room and board, making it the most expensive school in the country. That doesn’t include books, personal expenses or the $1,780 the school charges for accident and sickness insurance, which students must buy unless they have a waiver. It also doesn’t include financial aid, which about 65% of all Sarah Lawrence students receive.
Karen Lawrence, the college’s president, defends the hefty price tag. “Unlike any other college, Sarah Lawrence requires individual, biweekly student-faculty meetings, as part of every seminar (approximately 94% of our classes),” she says via e-mail. “As a result, our students spend almost twice the time in one-on-one discussion with faculty as students at other prestigious liberal arts schools.”
Low student-faculty ratios are a benefit of small, liberal arts colleges. And more than a few appear on our list of most expensive institutions of higher education. Among them: Bard College ($54,275), located in New York’s Hudson Valley; Trinity College ($53,380) in Hartford, Conn.; and Maine’s Bates College ($53,300).
But large, well-known universities also rank among the country’s priciest schools. For example, at Columbia University—the most expensive Ivy League university—tuition and fees alone cost $43,815. Add another $10,572 for room and board, not to mention the high cost of living in New York City. The University of Chicago estimates that a year’s study will cost $56,640. That includes books and personal expenses, but not health insurance ($2,220), which students must purchase if they don’t already have it.
In compiling our list of most expensive colleges and universities, we referenced data and surveys published by a variety of sources, including the Chronicle of Higher Education (which uses figures collected by the College Board) and Campus Grotto. We then compiled cost information published by the schools themselves for the 2010-2011 school year. Our list reflects what freshmen entering any of these traditional, four-year colleges and universities can expect to be billed for tuition, fees, room and board.
It does not include financial aid, and it’s important to note that the sticker price of a college degree is often not what it actually costs to attend. In fact, many of America’s most expensive schools are generous with financial aid. Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., costs about $53,600 to attend annually. But 80% of all students receive aid and 30% receive merit awards. Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., runs nearly $54,000 per year. The school, which this year has awarded aid packages ranging from $3,500 to $54,600 boasts on its Web site that it “meets the full demonstrated need of those who enroll.” Bard College even offers a program that allows eligible students to pay tuition at a rate comparable to a public university in their home states.
Despite the high cost of attendance at many private schools, the recession and slow economic recovery don’t seem to have affected enrollment. According to Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, “several private institutions nationwide are reporting record enrollments this fall, as was the case last year.”
That’s due to a few factors, he says, including a high rate of graduating high school seniors and efforts by private universities to keep costs low. Institutional grant aid increased 6.8% this year, compared with 9% last year. Still, the NAICU reports that the average cost of tuition and fees at private colleges has risen 4.5% since last year. While that’s the second-lowest increase in 37 years (the lowest was a 4.3% increase between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years), it’s still tough to swallow amid price deflation in almost every other sector of the economy.
Worth noting: In August Forbes completed its third annual survey of America’s Best Colleges, which rates schools based on quality of education, student experience and professional success. Of those that made the top 25, only four also appear on our list of most expensive schools: Columbia, Wesleyan, University of Chicago and Harvey Mudd.
1. Sarah Lawrence College
Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College
Annual cost: $57,556
Tuition and fees: $43,556
Room and board: $14,000
Located just northeast of New York City, Sarah Lawrence College is America’s most expensive school for higher education. Without a waiver, students are charged an additional $1,780 for accident/sickness insurance (not included in our cost estimate). About 65% of SLC students receive financial aid.
2. Columbia University
(New York, N.Y.)
Courtesy of Columbia University
Annual cost: $54,385
Tuition and fees: $43,815
Room and board: $10,572
Columbia’s tuition alone ($41,160) is already among the highest in the country, but incoming freshmen at the college also have to pay $2,655 in fees. Students also have to deal with the high cost of living in New York City. About half of all Columbia students receive grants to help pay for their education.
3. Bard College
Noah Sheldon/Bard College
Annual cost: $54,275
Tuition and fees: $42,465
Room and board: $11,810
Bard, in New York’s Hudson River Valley, provides financial aid to 65% of its students. One program allows eligible students to pay tuition at a rate comparable to a public university in their home states. An affiliated school in Massachusetts, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, is also expensive: $53,982 per year.
4. Wesleyan University
Courtesy of Wesleyan University
Annual cost: $53,976
Tuition and fees: $42,384
Room and board: $11,592
According to its website, Wesleyan, located on the Connecticut River, “meets the full demonstrated [financial aid] need of those who enroll.” Those needs could be large, considering its annual cost. This academic year, the school offered aid packages ranging from $3,500 to $54,600.
5. Vanderbilt University
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University
Annual cost: $53,660
Tuition and fees: $40,602
Room and board: $13,058
Including personal expenses and books, Vanderbilt estimates the cost of attendance for a first-year student to be $56,634. That doesn’t include $1,500 for a laptop computer and $650 in lab fees, both required of engineering students. About 60% of undergrads at Vanderbilt receive financial aid.