Last Thursday, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia announced a 3.9% tuition increase, its “second smallest … in 43 years.” A day earlier, The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., released the news that its board approved a 10% cut in tuition and fees for the coming academic year.


A cynic might think the schools are angling to stay below the Education Department’s radar. As part of an ongoing plan to help keep spiraling tuition charges in check, the department will annually publish online, starting in July, a list of schools with the highest percentage increases in tuition and fees in a three-year period, along with the 5% of colleges reporting the highest overall sticker prices. Schools that don’t provide the data risk losing access to billions of dollars in federal student aid.

There’s a great deal of aid out there, (and) some schools are doing an exceptional job,” says Robert Franek, senior vice president of publishing at The Princeton Review, which today releases with USA TODAY its list of 100 “Best Value” Colleges for 2011. The database includes only selective four-year schools, so it doesn’t list community colleges, which offer the lowest tuition. Details on financial aid can help families make sense of sticker prices.

Among information provided in the searchable database: tuition, average freshman grants, the percentage of students who borrow and average student debt at graduation — a detail “you’re never going to read in a college viewbook,” Franek says.

For the last three years, the University of Virginia and Swarthmore College have remained the No. 1 Best Value colleges for public and private schools, respectively. New College of Florida in Sarasota has consistently ranked No. 2 or No. 3.

Other schools have shifted position — sometimes dramatically — from year to year. For example, 41 schools included last year fell off this year’s list. Six schools new to the list this year vaulted all the way into the top 10.

That roller-coaster pattern doesn’t surprise Michelle Cooper, president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy. Cooper notes that the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings, which measure academic quality using factors such as graduation and retention rates, class size and reputation among peers, typically change little from year to year. The same liberal arts colleges, for example, have remained in the top 10 for the last three years, and mostly in the same order.

But colleges also recognize that families are struggling. Nearly two-thirds of incoming students reported that the “current economic situation significantly affected my college choice,” says an annual survey of more than 200,000 full-time first-year students attending four-year colleges. It was released last month by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

The reduction in tuition at Sewanee recognizes today’s new economic realities,” says John McCardell Jr., president of The University of the South, commonly known as Sewanee. “Higher education is on the verge of pricing itself beyond the reach of more and more families.” The Education Department began nudging colleges toward greater transparency last July, when it published, at, average net prices based on family income for schools that receive federal financial aid. Beginning Oct. 29, colleges will be required to post a “net price calculator” on their websites to help families estimate more precisely what they will be expected to pay.

The idea is to help families plan. It might also encourage some students to consider colleges whose published prices might have scared them off. Next year, for example, the University of Pennsylvania’s sticker price will be $53,976, but average freshman grants are estimated at $36,250, which would bring the tab to $17,726. At Sewanee, published tuition, fees, room and board prices next year come to $41,518, down from $46,112. It’s still working on financial aid details, but about 70% of freshmen this year received grants averaging $23,779.