George Washington University was dumped from U.S. News and World Report’s latest ranking of top colleges Wednesday, because school officials have been misreporting at least one key piece of data for more than a decade. Quickly, Twitter and the comments section of my blog lit up with assertions that GWU is the country’s most expensive school.
Well, not really.
GWU’s “sticker price” — the amount usually published in those thick U.S. News guidebooks but hardly ever charged to the average student — for this school year is $56,310. That includes tuition, housing and most fees. Each year, the Web site Campus Grotto publishes a ranking of the “most expensive schools, based on the total sticker price, and recently ranked GWU No. 40.
Yes, yes, that’s a lot of money to fork over — and some would argue that ranking No. 40 in price and No. 51 (or nothing at all) on the U.S. News list doesn’t match up. But realize that dozens of other schools charge even more.
At the top of the “most expensive” list, compiled each year by the Web site Campus Grotto, is Sarah Lawrence College at $61,236. No. 2 is New York University at $59,837.
When just looking at tuition and fees, Campus Grotto ranked GWU No. 4, but that measure is seldom used when discussing the cost of college. GWU freshmen and sophomores are required to live on-campus, and nearly three-fourths of all students do so.
That’s sticker price. A school’s “net price” is calculated by subtracting the average amount of need-based aid and scholarship grants from the total cost. The U.S. Department of Education reports this price on its College Navigator Web site and its latest stats are from the 2010-2011 school year. During that school year, GWU’s average net price was $27,793. For GWU students from the lowest income bracket, the average net price was $14,670, while students whose families made more than $110,001 paid an average of $35,236.
GWU’s averages are lower than those reported for two other private D.C. universities. At Catholic University, the average net price was $34,724. Catholic’s neediest students paid an average of $31,776, while the wealthiest paid an average of $36,021. At American University, the average net price was $31,447 for the 2010-2011 school year, with the neediest students paying an average of $27,022 and the wealthiest paying $37,928.
GWU’s average net price is higher than that of nearby Georgetown University, where the average is $26,521. Georgetown’s neediest students paid an average of $10,603, while the wealthiest paid an average of $41,277. At Trinity Washington University, the average net price was $15,276, with the neediest students paying an average of $13,737 and the wealthiest paying $22,902.
And what about student loan debt loads? According to the Project on Student Debt, the average GWU graduate in 2011 had $32,714 to pay back. That’s much more than the national average of $26,600. It’s also more than the average at Georgetown ($28,035) and Howard University ($15,080) -- but less than American ( $37,674).
Now, it wasn’t always that way. Between 1999 and 2006, GWU increased tuition more than 50 percent. The school was crowned “America’s most expensive college” by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007.
Around that same time, GWU had a president change. In August 2007, former Johns Hopkins University provost Steven Knapp assumed the presidency, replacing Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who went on to write a book about his presidency titled “Big Man on Campus.”
Knapp has repeatedly said that one of his goals is to shake the reputation of being so expensive. During Knapp’s tenure, GWU trustees have increased tuition but not as much as many other private universities, some of which now have sticker prices of more than $60,000.
"We're trying to keep tuition growth as low as possible,” Knapp told the GW Hatchet student newspaper in February 2011. “We want to get off that list of most expensive universities.”
UPDATE: This post was updated on Nov. 27. An earlier version of this post referenced a net-price ranking compiled by the Web site Campus Grotto that appears to be based on flawed data. I replaced those numbers with statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.