With rare exceptions, sticker prices at colleges go nowhere but up. In 2012, Sarah Lawrence College in New York crossed a threshold for tuition, fees, room and board that dozens of others have now topped: $60,000 a year.
Sometime soon, prices will surpass $70,000. Factoring in books, plane tickets, other expenses and inflation, a student entering a private college or university this fall without any financial aid might spend more than $300,000 to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
These round numbers are intimidating. And often misleading.
“The reaction is horror, obviously,” said Sandra Block, a senior associate editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. “You view the numbers, and you think about four years of that.”
The angst is especially intense as students near a May 1 deadline for deciding what college to attend. Block said many forget that schools with high prices often give high discounts.
“The message from our research is: If you have good grades and are motivated, don’t rule out a school because it’s got this big, scary published price,” Block said.
Sarah Lawrence, with 1,800 students, has led the nation in sticker price for several years. Its current rate is $65,480, and it will announce the price for next school year soon.
Tom Blum, the college’s vice president for administration, said Sarah Lawrence prides itself on small class sizes and offers substantial financial aid. More than three-fifths of students receive need-based grants, he said. Those average about $28,000 a year. But he acknowledged that this message is sometimes hard to get across. “There is a sticker price shock factor that will stop parents cold,” Blum said.
This week, a Pakistani student admitted to New York University expressed surprise at a projected cost of attendance that exceeded $70,000. That figure included the estimated cost of plane tickets and other expenses beyond tuition, fees, room and board.
But Nia Mirza, 19, said the estimate was higher than she thought it would be. So she started an online petition seeking to lower the tuition.
“I’m scared of what to expect from NYU in the future,” Mirza said. “I may not be able to afford sudden increases in tuition and fees in upcoming years because I will not have unlimited money.”
In this school year, NYU’s sticker price ranks among the top five in the country, according to the College Board: $62,930. Next year’s price is projected to be nearly $66,000.
NYU spokesman John Beckman said price increases are driven in part by the school’s location.
“We’re in New York City, and real estate is more expensive here, housing is more expensive here, transit is more expensive here,” he said. Beckman said the school has expanded financial aid in recent years and is in the midst of a campaign to raise $1 billion for scholarships and grants.
Other schools in or near big cities are among those with the highest sticker prices in 2014-2015, including Harvey Mudd College in Southern California ($64,427); Columbia University in New York ($63,440); and the University of Chicago ($62,458).
Hiram Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna College in Southern California ($62,215), said cost is “driven by a commitment to value.” He said the school is “very concerned about the impact of a tuition sticker price [on the reality and perception of affordability],” and that it is committed to meeting the full financial need of all students it admits. Applications are up 18 percent this year, he said. Application growth at many elite private colleges shows that their sticker prices are not dampening demand.
Zack Lowell, 17, of Raleigh, N.C., said he has been accepted to five schools, including private Northwestern University (Illinois) and the public flagship in his home state, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As much as he would love to attend the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, Lowell said it would be selfish to ask his parents to foot the bill for a school that charges more than $60,000 a year. As he ponders several offers, Lowell said he is mindful that his 15-year-old brother will be heading to college soon.
“Every time my brother sees an acceptance letter that I’ve gotten, he looks me in the face and says, ‘Don’t screw me over,’ ” Lowell said. “Money is limited, and I just have to think about more than just myself.”
UNC hasn’t offered him any grants, he said. But the in-state tuition, fees, and room and board for the coming school year at Chapel Hill will be $19,464. That is less than a third of Northwestern’s sticker price.
Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.