- 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.”

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