How a $54K-Per-Year School Is Deemed a ‘Best Value College’

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The private universities listed in a new “Best Value Colleges” roundup run $54,200 annually for tuition, fees, books, and room and board. That sounds pretty expensive, and it is. Could it also represent a good value? What if students actually paid less than half the list price?

In fact, that’s what the majority of students do. And that’s how these schools wind up being highlighted for providing good bang for the buck.

Princeton’s latest edition of its “Best Value Colleges” features 150 schools—75 private and 75 public. As you’d expect, the average cost at the public institutions is a fraction of their private counterparts. USA Today sums up the key data on all of the “best value” colleges here, showing not only the “sticker price,” but the actual price paid by the average student:

Their total annual cost of attendance, including tuition and fees, room and board and books and supplies, averaged $19,500 for freshmen attending public universities in their home state, and $54,200 for those going to private schools. When freshman grants, including state, federal and institutional aid, are factored into the cost, the final tab drops to $10,600 at public universities and $21,700 at private universities.

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Those are some serious Black Friday-type markdowns, especially for the private schools—the equivalent of about 60% off. While the recent failed flat pricing experiment from JCPenney is the latest example demonstrating how consumers just plain love sales—even if they obviously manipulate shoppers—the original and actual college pricing figures can be puzzling. Because almost no one pays full price, students and their families should essentially be disregarding published tuition rates.

Which raises the question: Why do these published rates exist to begin with? Well, as mentioned, the inflated “sticker price” can make the discounted, post-grant rate seem like quite the deal to students who’d consider a pricey school off the table. Also, there is a portion of students from well-off families at every college that do indeed pay full price.

Even so, there is some backlash in higher education to the common practice of obfuscating actual student costs by simultaneously boosting tuition prices and financial aid and grants. Several schools have slashed tuition and fees, as well as scholarships and aid, hoping to appeal to students who don’t want to play the types of games associated with car dealerships and discount-crazed retailers like Jos. A. Bank, of “buy one, get three free” fame.

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Another interesting revelation from the Princeton Review roundup concerns average student debt upon graduation. Even when considering the discounted price, private schools cost double public universities, on average. And yet, public school grads tend to finish up their degrees with more debt.

Let’s look at a couple examples for the sake of comparison. Full tuition at Duke University is $44,000, and the average graduate gets out of school with $16,500 in debt. Down the road at rival UNC-Chapel Hill, tuition is $5,800 for in-state students and $26,500 for out-of-staters. The average debt for these public school grads is around $17,500. The difference is even starker in New Jersey. The full price of tuition, room and board, books, and fees at Princeton University is $52,480, compared to $26,217 in state or $36,369 out of state for students at the nearby College of New Jersey. Graduates of the latter come away with $32,754 debt, on average, compared to just $5,330 for the smarty pants Princeton kids.

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Among all of the Princeton Review’s “Best Value Colleges,” the median debt at private universities was slightly less than public schools: $20,556 vs. $21,373. How could this be? Robust aid at private schools factors in. Students at private universities are more likely to earn their degrees in four years too, which helps keep costs down. It’s also quite likely that private school students’ families provided significant help paying for college—which is probably one of the reasons why these students felt like they could attend in the first place.