College & Workforce Readiness

Cost of Public Colleges Varies Widely, Report Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — November 02, 2015 3 min read
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You’ve heard it before: Educational opportunity varies a lot by zip code. That certainly extends to higher education, even in public colleges and universities. And today we have yet another round of sobering numbers that show the disparate impact of that truth on students and their families.

A paper issued Monday by the Urban Institute in Washington analyzes the tuition and fees that states’ public colleges and universities charge students. A quick for-instance: In the 2014-15 school year, Wyoming students faced in-state tuition and fees of $4,646, while in New Hampshire, those costs amounted to $14,712. (That’s in a year when the national in-state average at four-year public schools in the United States was $9,139.)

The two other states with the steepest price tags were Vermont ($14,419) and Pennsylvania ($13,246). On the most-affordable end, along with Wyoming, were Alaska ($6,138) and Utah ($6,177). Here are the average published tuition and fees for public institutions in 2014-15, according to the paper.

One big driver of the differences is variation in how much funding states channel to their systems of higher education. New Hampshire, which charged the most for tuition and fees, also had the lowest level of state funding in 2014-15, according to the paper: $3,660 per fulltime student. Alaska, which charged the second-lowest rate of tuition and fees, topped the list of richest higher-ed funding amounts, with $18,550 per fulltime student. The national average was $7,730 per fulltime student.

Variations in states’ wealth and per-capita income also influence the pricing picture. So does the share of a state’s students that leave the state to go to college, and that varies tremendously: Half of the 2012 high school graduates in Vermont (which had the second-highest tuition and fees) went to college in other states, but only 7 percent did so in Mississippi (which was #11 on the list of more-affordable tuition and fees).

When a college system has a lower percentage of in-state students and a higher percentage of out-of-state students, it could mean that there is more tuition revenue that can take the place of state funding, said Sandy Baum, the lead author of the paper. But she emphasized that in considering all the factors that shape college pricing, it’s important to keep in mind that “none of these variables are close to perfectly correlated” with price. Plain and simple, many factors work together to influence price, to varying extents from state to state.

College affordability has been an increasingly hot topic in the last couple of years, so as state and federal policymakers debate ways to manage college costs—and student debt—data like these are useful in that national dialogue. The paper also examines patterns in student enrollment and grant aid, and how states fund their higher-education systems. A companion paper explores how the same cluster of factors has changed over time.

The two papers don’t yield neat generalizations that cut across states, but their authors hope the picture of the variability itself will inform the national discussion.

“Insight into this variability makes it clear that a national agenda for reducing the barriers students and families face in financing higher education requires an understanding of state policies and circumstances and strategies for equalizing opportunity across the nation,” they write.

The Urban Institute has created a new website to house the college-pricing data, along with enough charts and Excel spreadsheets to keep the wonkiest of higher-ed research wonks happy. The paper that offers a current snapshot of states’ varied costs, “Financing Public Higher Education: Variation Across States,” is also posted there, along with the paper that tracks the changes in funding, pricing, and enrollment over time (“Financing Public Higher Education: The Evolution of State Funding.”) Both are co-authored by Baum, a senior fellow, and research assistant Martha Johnson.

More insight into college pricing and student aid will be out later this week, when the College Board releases its annual reports on trends in college pricing and student aid (also authored by Baum).

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.