We hear a lot about list tuition, but what colleges cost the most per student ON AVERAGE?
To our knowledge, the highest announced Cost of Attendance (COA) in 2022 is Chapman University, located in Orange, California, which asks for $85,060 from its highest-paying first years, about one in seven students. The University of Chicago had led in this metric in prior years and the CTAS projection lies just a few dollars south of Chapman’s. But the U of C has not posted its 2022 figure yet, although it does boast that it is “committed to making your education in the College affordable for your family.”
Because of pervasive discounting and other aid, the stated COA isn’t a good measure of what the average student pays, though. And we know it can’t be measured by the Department of Education’s Net Price metric because of the significant number of students excluded from the calculation, something which especially affects reporting by expensive schools, with their large share of well-heeled students paying full prices. (See the table farther down in this post showing just how illusory highly-selective college Net Prices can be.)
Average Net Cost* clears many of the metrics’ flaws away and permits ranking of which colleges generate the highest average net spending by their entering students. Our projection of the most expensive school in the US came as a bit of a surprise: Pitzer College, one of the Claremont group of liberal arts schools east of Los Angeles, at $60,341.
Several things jump out about this list.
- Among the Ivy League schools, only Brown and Cornell crack the Top 20. Brown and Cornell also hold the distinction of being among the 3 Ivy League schools with the smallest endowment on a per student basis (counting undergraduate and graduate). The 3rd Ivy League in that set, Columbia, runs much larger graduate programs, is less dependent on undergraduate tuition, and charges a lower average cost. This isn’t to imply that any admissions officer at Brown or Cornell has ever thought “we aren’t as loaded as Dartmouth so maybe we need to admit richer, higher-paying kids.” Rather, the osmosis from a smaller endowment to greater reliance on undergraduate tuition would stem from an impersonal process of budgets, enrollment models and comparisons with peer institutions. But the relationship is too clear to miss when data is set side-by-side.
- The composition of the entering class prices matters for these averages. 57% of Pitzer’s entering class in 2019 was full pay. For #2 NYU, 54% were full pay. That isn’t too different from Ivy Leagues like Cornell (also 54% full pay), Brown (57%) or the University of Pennsylvania (51%), but the pricing models for schools like Cornell, Brown and Penn discount deeply for lower-income students, lowering the average. The Average Net Cost for several of the Ivy Leagues has actually been dropping in recent years as the universities actively recruit lower income students, whom they charge lower prices. In an earlier post on the 568 Group suit, we had pointed to Yale’s clear commitment to access for lower-income students, a commitment displayed in the university’s metrics. As the school has gradually admitted more lower income students with large aid packages, its average net cost has been declining.
- NYU absolutely stands out from this list because of its size. It has more students by a multiple than almost any other college on the list. This leads us to conclude it is the most successful university in the US – if you look at it from a business and not an academic standpoint. Our estimate of NYU’s undergraduate program revenues, with certain allocations of ancillary fee revenues, indicates it generates more than state flagship behemoths like Penn State and Ohio State. With rapidly declining admissions rates, climbing yield (!) and a polished image, one must marvel at NYU as a business in a tough industry.
- The smallest institution on the list, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which counts alumni like Tim Burton and Sofia Coppola, sits among a set of high-priced arts & music colleges making the Top 20. RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design), always near the top of this list, joins other arts schools like Berklee, the School of the Visual Arts in New York, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and the heterodox New School in New York.
- Most large metro areas in the US have expensive, high-gloss private colleges that may not quite have Ivy League levels of selectivity but are fairly sizable and carry status and reputation. We just mentioned NYU, one of several such institutions in the Big Apple. The research triangle in North Carolina has Wake Forest; DC has American; Miami has the University of Miami – and so on. But there are exceptions to this. What about the Bay Area, among the world’s richest metro areas? Stanford and Berkeley (with a tiny cohort of out-of-state students) are inaccessible to the vast majority of high school students. Santa Clara is primed to assume this role, currently vacant, and take advantage of its location in Silicon Valley. The school reveals its ambitions through press releases about its ascending US News standings, posting about the rankings on its admissions website. It has climbed from 19th to 9th place in our ranking of most expensive schools in the US, and just welcomed its largest ever entering class last fall. Earlier this month, Santa Clara selected a new president, specifically citing her success expanding the midwestern school she had previously led. Things to work on: an endowment that’s a bit undernourished and a mediocre yield (2019: 17%). But there are plenty of pluses on the other side of the ledger.
The chart above represents projections. The most recent ranking available using full finlized data instead of estimates dates from 2018/19:
Santa Clara is the big climber from 2018 to 2022, but also note Barnard’s strength. The financial projections are partly based on historical patterns so the rise of Santa Clara and Barnard on this list extrapolates from past trends. Let’s see if this prediction comes true.
A technical note: our 2021 post on this same topic featured higher forecast average net costs than this year. This is attributable to the reduced college inflation we saw, lower than last year’s assumptions of rapid growth in an economy recovering from COVID. The rapid GDP growth has occurred; the parallel increase in college inflation hasn’t.
Certain schools with enrollments of ~100 students were excluded from the rankings due to their very small size.
* Average Net Cost is a consumer-centric metric which shows costs as they are presented in commercial transactions outside of higher education. It represents a full-time student’s cost of attending college including: tuition, room & board, fees and estimates of supplies less institutional aid of all kinds (including need-based and merit), and less federal and state/local aid. Loans and other repayable amounts, along with work study earnings, are excluded and do not reduce the cost. Room and board charges are on-campus costs for residential colleges; for students attending non-residential institutions, the college’s own estimate of such off-campus costs is mostly used. CTAS’ Net Cost differs from the Net Price figure self-reported by colleges because it is comprehensive and covers all entering students, including the approximately 40% not included in Net Price calculations.
Read this post and others at our CTAS Higher Ed Business blog on Substack.