New U.S. Education Department Data Identify High- and Low-Cost Schools

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by Charles Dervarics

The U.S. Department of Education’s latest college cost report shows minority-serving institutions with some of the lowest net prices nationwide while others are struggling to keep tuition down due to state cuts and other factors.

The education department on Tuesday released its second annual set of data on the highest- and lowest-price colleges and universities by sector, meeting a mandate established by Congress in 2008. “These lists are a major step forward in unraveling the mystery of higher education pricing,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when releasing the data.

In the four-year public sector, Puerto Rico placed four colleges and universities among the top 10 with the lowest net price, which is tuition minus average grant and scholarship aid. Macon State College in Georgia had the lowest net price, followed by two Puerto Rico institutions–Escuela de Artes Plasticas and University of Puerto Rico-Bayamon.

Sitting Bull College, a tribal institution in North Dakota, also made the top 10 list of public colleges with the lowest net prices.

But minority-serving institutions also were represented among public colleges with the largest net increases from 2008 to 2010. Historically Black Cheyney University in Pennsylvania was first on the list with a 63 percent increase, the department said.

Grambling State University in Louisiana was third with an increase of 54 percent during this period.

Department officials said state budget cuts are likely factors in these increases. With more than 40 states cutting higher education funding, Duncan said the trend toward lower state funding is “the single most significant factor in tuition increases.”

Pennsylvania public institutions are getting hit particularly hard, data show. Looking only at sticker prices – or tuition without factoring in grant aid – Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh were the most expensive four-year public institutions in 2010, the secretary said.

Overall, college costs increased by 15 percent at four-year public colleges nationwide, with average increases as high as 40 percent in Arizona, California and Georgia, he added. “We’re seeing some alarming trends,” Duncan said.

But one encouraging sign is the continued affordability of community colleges. Even with surging enrollments at many public two-year institutions, net prices increased by only 1 percent.

A senior department official said that since community colleges do not have a research mission, they can keep costs down and focus on preparing students for technical jobs or baccalaureate programs.

Duncan said the data also show the need for prospective students and their families to do comparison shopping before selecting a school. For example, more than 75 percent of students filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid list only a single college or university.

“Something’s wrong with that picture,” Duncan said. “We want families to be looking at multiple universities, not just one.”

Elsewhere, Connecticut College had the highest tuition among private non-profit four-year colleges with $43,990. Liberal arts colleges in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast represented most of the institutions on this list.

Art, music and design schools accounted for most of the schools with the highest net price among private non-profits.

The data also lists information on private for-profit colleges and universities in several categories, including less-than-two-year, two-year, and four-year sectors.

Students and families can visit the Education Department’s College Affordability and Transparency Center web site to look at trends among individual schools. The web site is at http://collegecost.ed.gov/.

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