Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. has long held the dubious honor of being one of the nation's most expensive colleges. This year, it tops the list for the second year in a row, with an all-in price of $58,334 a year, or close to $240,000 for a four-year course of studies if inflation in higher ed continues on its current course.
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We calculated the list of America's Most Expensive Colleges with the help of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity, a Washington non-profit that researches the causes of rising educational costs. The center, relying on data from the government's National Center for Education Statistics, includes not only tuition and room and board, but the cost of books and other costs such as transportation and mandatory computers.
It's those other costs — especially the cost of being in the big city — that help push some new entrants into the Top Ten list, including the New School and Fordham University. Both are located, like Sarah Lawrence, in the ultra-expensive New York City metropolitan area. The New School's emphasis on the arts also pushed the estimated cost of books, supplies and other expenses to $4,300, double the total at many other schools.
The biggest expense at most schools is still salaries and wages, however, and that explains Sarah Lawrence's perennial position at the top. The 2,500-student college, located on a 44-acre tract a short train ride from Manhattan, has a student-faculty ratio of only nine to one. Unlike the slightly less expensive Ivy League schools nearby, Sarah Lawrence has no vast lecture halls where 300 students listen to an underpaid teaching assistant explain medieval history. "In practically all cases, our classes are seminars with an average head count of 12 students," said Thomas Blum, vice president for administration. "We have five lecture sections this fall, and our largest lecture section may have 75 students."
The estimated cost also represents only what students from relatively affluent families pay. Most colleges operate a very efficient system of price discrimination, offering "grants" and "scholarships" to better match tuition to what parents can actually afford to pay. At Sarah Lawrence, 64% of students get some sort of grant, with the average amount $29,500. But with a relatively tiny $66 million endowment, Sarah Lawrence can't afford the pledges of larger schools like Yale and Harvard to give students from poor families a completely free ride.
Fordham, closer to New York in the Bronx, extends some sort of aid to 93% of its students; the school says even the government-calculated average "net price" of $31,383 for students with some sort of aid gives a misleading picture. The weighted average cost paid by all students is $33,280, compared with $40,000 at comparable private schools where a much smaller percentage of students receive aid.
Parents also have to consider the cost of traveling four or five times a year to a far-flung university, and necessary expenses like laptop computers or art supplies that can increase the overall college bill. Some schools in urban areas have general-purpose dining cards that students can use to rack up large charges at nearby restaurants.
Parents with children a few years away from college can add thousands of dollars to these estimated costs. Higher education expenses rose 2.3% this year, according to the Commonfund, a Wilton, Conn. non-profit that helps universities manage their funds, and studies educational inflation to help schools budget their expenses. The biggest drivers are salaries and benefits, said William Jarvis, managing director of research. While Commonfund estimates supplies and materials will rise 8.1% this year and utilities 4%, Jarvis said, "they don't account for much of the index."
"What we'd seen for the last few years was a disinflationary trend in salaries," he said. "This year that stopped."
Faculty salaries were estimated to rise 1.4% this year, he said, except in some parts of the south and southwest. Disinflation is a scary thing, he said, but the shift to inflation reported by colleges "may be a straw in the wind in terms of other things in the economy."
The average salary for a doctoral-level professor has risen from $16,425 in 1967 to $157,282 this year, Commonfund estimates. The overall cost of four-year colleges, meanwhile, has increased more than eightfold compared with a 6.7 times increase in consumer prices.
State universities can be a low-cost alternative to private schools, but only if you live in-state.
We had the Center for College Affordability pull the most expensive state schools, and they look about like the private colleges for out-of-staters. The Top Eight were campuses in the prestigious University of California system, led by Berkeley at $53,933 a year. Surfing fans will pay a couple of hundred bucks less to earn their undergraduate degree at UC-Santa Cruz, while the Ivy-Class University of Michigan costs $48,331 for out-of-staters.
Worth noting: In August Forbes completed its fourth annual survey of America's Best Colleges, which rates schools based on quality of education, student experience and professional success. Only the one school, the University of Chicago, was among the Top Ten of both lists. Two of the Top Ten best schools are almost entirely free: West Point and the Air Force Academy. Perhaps it's not too late to convince your kids to embrace military discipline.
Here are the Top 5 Most Expensive Colleges:
No. 1: Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
Pricey New York-area location and low, 9:1 student/faculty ratio make this 1,300-undergraduateliberal-arts college the nation's most expensive school.
Total cost: $58,334
No. 2: University of Chicago
Brainiac Central on Lake Michigan comes with a stiff price, but places its graduates in the best professional schools in the country. The 65% of students who receive some assistance averaged $27,460 in aid.
Total cost: $57,590
No. 3: The New School in New York, NY
Photo: Richard B. Levine/Newscom
This eclectic collection of colleges in downtown Manhattan — graduates include Donna Karan, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Walter Matthau — vaults to the Top 10 thanks mainly to $4,000 in expenses for books, supplies and other costs like travel and meals. Average financial aid of $11,355 is low because of high number of foreign students who pay full freight.
Total cost: $57,199
No. 4: Washington University in St. Louis
Photo: David R. Frazier/Danita Delimont/Newscom
Washington University in St. Louis Costs have increased steadily at this Midwestern liberal-arts university in recent years. Half of 7,100 undergraduates receive some kind of aid; average amount is $23,963.
Total cost: $56,930
No. 5: Columbia University in New York, NY
Manhattan campus insures this Ivy League research institution is always on the Top Ten list, despite a $7 billion endowment to help pay the bills. More than half of students get aid; average amount is $36,041.
Total cost: $56,681
Click here for the full list of America's Most Expensive Colleges