- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2011

Can’t decide between that prestigious culinary school or the community college down the street? A new online tool created by the Department of Education could help students make that decision, with detailed price comparisons for colleges and universities of all types across the country.

If you’re looking to go to school for free, New York’s Webb Institute could fit the bill - if you’re lucky enough to get in. The naval architecture and engineering school has only 80 undergraduates, all of whom get full scholarships, making the annual tuition price $0.

Bates College, a liberal arts institution in Maine, comes in as the priciest school in the nation, with an annual tuition of $51,300, the Education Department reported.

Two-year community and technical schools remain the best bargains, with an average national price of $2,527 per year.

Traditional four-year public colleges and universities average $6,397 a year, with Penn State University’s main campus in State College, Pa., coming in as the most expensive in that category with a yearly price tag of $14,416 for in-state students, followed closely by the University of Pittsburgh at $14,154.

Private four-year nonprofit colleges average $21,324 a year, while their for-profit counterparts average $15,661.

Along with providing an unprecedented database, the project has an ulterior motive, according to some education scholars; namely, creating a wall of shame for institutions that dramatically raise tuition rates year after year.

The worst offenders - the 5 percent that have increased prices the most from 2007-08 to 2009-10 - must submit a report to the Education Department justifying the price hikes.

“We hope this information will encourage schools to make the costs of college more transparent so students … aren’t saddled with unmanageable debt,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

While the goal is transparency, some institutions have found slick ways to save their reputations and avoid the impression that they’re raising prices, said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“Some schools change what they put into the tuition charge,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It is possible to game the system.”

For example, Mr. Vedder said some schools may bypass tuition increases by tacking on extra charges, like fees to use the computer labs or athletic facilities. Those tricks, he added, could go unnoticed, except by the students forced to pay them.

“Government bureaucrats find it difficult to precisely define what a tuition fee is,” Mr. Vedder said.

For the average student, the list, while interesting, may not have a real influence on their decision, said Jim Hermes, director of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“For the most part, people who go to community colleges are going to go to their local school,” he told The Washington Times on Thursday. “Our students are coming from those local communities.”

While community colleges and technical schools remain the cheapest, some have dramatically raised prices over the past four years, according to the database.

Charles A. Jones Skills and Business Education Center in California hikes tuition 200 percent between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 academic years.

Twenty-five other community colleges and technical schools increased rates by more than one-third over the same time span, the list shows.

But those hikes are nothing compared with Clayton State University, a division of the University System of Georgia. According to the Education Department, the school raised tuition 1,561 percent from 2006-2007 to 2008-2009.

The dramatic rise baffles even school officials. UGA spokesman John Millsaps said the $10,630 rate listed for 2008-2009 is in the ballpark, but the bargain-basement price of $640 listed for 2006-2007 is obviously false.

“We have no understanding of how they arrived at that number” for 2006-07, he said. “We’ve got no clue what that means … and no one will give us an answer.”

Even the costliest schools shouldn’t expect a mass exodus of students, Mr. Vedder said. A good education at a low price, he added, is often not the determining factor.

“For all their grumbling, [students] look at college as a broader experience, and they’re more interested in the social dimensions of college. For many people, those count just as much” as the education itself.

The database is available at collegecost.ed.gov.

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