When will the first university or college charge $100,000 per year?

When will the first American college or university charge $100,000 or more to attend? What might that mean for higher education?

I first asked this question back in 2018.  I wanted to use that psychologically important six figure price as a milestone to come, a signal event in the history of rising published institutional charges.  In that post I offered a forecast. Today I’d like to check in on that post, as I’ve been doing ever since (for examples: 2021, 2022).

99,999 by Alan Levine

To recap and summarize: I was trying to estimate when the first American campus would crack $100,000 for total cost of attendance for a year of full time undergraduate schooling.  That means the combination of tuition and fees, plus room and board.  It includes only published prices, not accounting for discounts through scholarships etc.

For example, here’s the official, published total cost of attendance for the University of Southern California, with a helpful breakdown:

University of Southern California total cost of attendance 2023 May 11Amherst College helpfully adds some further expenses:

Amherst College total cost of attendance_2023

Looking for such data, I selected some or all of the most expensive institutions, checked out the rate by which their prices rose, and estimated that one would breach six figures by the 2029-2030 academic year.  Last year I revisited these Most Expensive Universities (MEUs) and found several getting pricier more quickly.   Two, Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania looked like they would reach six figures by 2026.

Let’s check in on those MEUs in this year of 2023.

Here’s the list of leading contenders I assembled previously, updated with their official costs for the upcoming (2023-2024) academic year, re-ranked in descending price order:

USC $90,921

Harvey Mudd College 89,115

University of Chicago 89,040

Wellesley College 89,091

University of Pennsylvania 89,028 ($88,892 for living off campus)

Amherst College 88,599 (assuming the insurances aren’t waived)

Tufts University 88,300 (without health insurance, as noted)

Northwestern University 87,804

Dartmouth College 87,793

Brown University 84,828

There are others in this bracket.  Cal Tech is definitely towards the top with an annual charge of $86,886.  Columbia University’s total cost comes in at $85,967.   Claremont McKenna College prices in at $86,500.  Duke University: $84,517.   Stanford University: $84,683. Sarah Lawrence College publishes a direct charge of $81,224. Harvard University slides just under the 80K bracket with $79,450.

(For simplicity’s sake, I’ve left off estimates of non-billable personal costs, as well as extra fees levied on first-year students.  I’m also using on-campus housing figures, as the host campus is responsible for those, unlike for off-campus living.  I include books, as those are both necessary class costs, and also amenable to open education resource amelioration.)

In my previous posts on this topic I worked from a 4% annual price increase.  If we apply that to USC, they cross over the $100K barrier in four academic years:

2023-2024 $90,921

2024-2025 94,558

2025-2026 98,340

2026-2027 102,274

Harvey Mudd also crosses in that academic year, just a hair behind:

2023-2024 $89,115

2024-2025 92,680

2025-2026 96,387

2026-2027 100,242

Let’s see how all eighteen of those campuses fare over the 2020s:

Institution 2023-2024 2024-2025 2025-2026 2026-2027 2027-2028
USC 90,921 94557 98340 102273 106364
Harvey Mudd College 89,115 92679 96386 100242 104251
University of Chicago 89,040 92601 96305 100157 104164
Wellesley College 89,091 92654 96360 100215 104223
University of Pennsylvania 89,028 92589 96292 100144 104150
Amherst College 88,599 92142 95828 99661 103648
Tufts University 88,300 91832 95505 99325 103298
Northwestern University 87,804 91316 94968 98767 102718
Dartmouth College 87,793 91304 94956 98755 102705
Cal Tech 86,886 90361 93975 97734 101644
Claremont McKenna College 86,500 89960 93558 97300 101192
Columbia University 85,967 89405 92981 96701 100569
Brown University 84,828 88221 91749 95419 99236
Stanford University 84,683 88070 91593 95256 99067
Duke University 84,517 87897 91413 95070 98872
Sarah Lawrence College 81,224 84472 87851 91365 95020
Harvard University 79,450 82628 85933 89370 92945

(I fudged cents manually, mostly cutting them off, because I couldn’t figure out how to handle that in Google Sheets.)

2026-2027 seems to be the breakthrough year with five institutions crossing over.  Next, academic year 2027-2028 sees six figures as par for the course for this MEU group.

Now, that 4% back-of-the-envelope number is out of date.  Inflation famously or notoriously has taken off over the past two years, and that definitely impacts college and university economics. The inflation rate has cooled off this week to 4.9% (Bureau of Labor Statistics), but was obviously higher for a time.  Some of those higher costs are baked into present pricing (think energy, food service, health care, and also staff cost of living) and so will goose up charges for the near future.

Let’s see what happens if published prices go up by a rough and simple 5%:

Institution 2023-2024 2024-2025 2025-2026 2026-2027 2027-2028
USC 90,921 95467 100240 105252 110515
Harvey Mudd College 89,115 93570 98249 103161 108319
University of Chicago 89,040 93492 98166 103074 108228
Wellesley College 89,091 93545 98222 103133 108290
University of Pennsylvania 89,028 93479 98153 103061 108214
Amherst College 88,599 93028 97680 102564 107692
Tufts University 88,300 92715 97350 102218 107329
Northwestern University 87,804 92194 96803 101644 106726
Dartmouth College 87,793 92182 96791 101631 106712
Cal Tech 86,886 91230 95791 100581 105610
Claremont McKenna College 86,500 90825 95366 100134 105141
Columbia University 85,967 90265 94778 99517 104493
Brown University 84,828 89069 93522 98199 103108
Stanford University 84,683 88917 93363 98031 102932
Duke University 84,517 88742 93179 97838 102730
Sarah Lawrence College 81,224 85285 89549 94026 98728
Harvard University 79,450 83422 87593 91973 96571

2025-2026 is the new breakthrough year in this model.  A majority of MEUs join the six figure club the following year.

What does this mean for higher education?

In a sense all of this data-gathering and modeling doesn’t matter very much.  $100,000 is an arbitrary number, no more important than $99,999 or $100,001. I’m also picking on a very, very small slice of American colleges and universities.  The community college sector, for example, is far larger in number of institutions and educates a massively bigger number of students.  Further, it’s not exactly shocking news to reveal that higher education’s sticker prices rise.

Yet I do think this probe could be of use.  To begin with, the switchover from five to six figures may prove to be psychologically or culturally significant. We do tend to pay extra attention to such numbers, like the year 2000 millennium or numbering COVID dead by increments of hundreds of thousands, then millions. To the extent the first campus to cross this arbitrary milestone becomes a cultural moment, I hope these posts can prepare some of us.  Further, I expect at least some administrators to be aware of the potentially bad press for that milestone, and will take steps to make it look less frightening; we can anticipate such steps now.

There’s another reason to pay attention to these MEUs. They tend to draw outsized attention both within and outside of the academic ecosystem.  Their reputations loom large within a very calibrated institutional hierarchy. How they handle price increases, and how society responds to them, will be the subject of study from other colleges and universities.

More deeply, I think such staggeringly high sticker prices illuminate the real pricing model of higher ed, one based on combining those fees with deep discounts.  I expect discount rates to grow in tandem with the published prices, perhaps reaching 75% by the decade’s end. This clearly reveals the massive disparities of American income and wealth; indeed, one could see our deepening discount+rising prices model is a carefully structured expression of living in a post-Piketty world.

Once again I must hedge this discussion. These are crude, first-order extrapolations.  A whole galaxy of events can throw them off target: escalating war in Ukraine, which helped trigger inflation; a financial crisis; economic and/or political crises between the United States and China; political chaos involving the 2024 election; climate disasters; etc.  Within higher education administrators have options and strategies which could take them in different directions.

For now, I hope I’ve inspired some discussion.  I’ll check back on this six figure forecast a year from now.

(daring odometer photo by Alan Levine)




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16 Responses to When will the first university or college charge $100,000 per year?

  1. Jay Collier says:

    As the campaign to demonize higher education has led to reduced government funding — for what is supposed to be a public good — it is my understanding that universities have raised their published prices to get more from full pay students. However, I’m also interested in changes in discount rates for other income bands. Do you know if those average, real-world costs stayed the same or changed?

    • Glen McGhee says:

      “the campaign to demonize higher education has led to reduced government funding” no, not really. I’ve started digging into the figures state by state with the help of perplexity, and it is complicated. As Kevin Carey pointed out, it fluctuates with the economic conditions in each state. Not clear up, but the belief is good for hi-ed dogma. My preferred approach is: state-by-state, by education tier, by student FTE, but also tracking the taxable base in that state. Student FTE has exploded, as well, first women, blacks, now first-generation students have swelled the rolls, and it’s no wonder state expenditures have trailed (IF in fact they have, this is not a given)>

      — for what is supposed to be a public good — Where does the US Constitution say that? It doesn’t. Please read Tina Groeger’s 2021 history of Boston labor and the co-development of education, and progressive elites of Boston Brahmans.

      • Jay Collier says:

        Good points. These are some sources that have informed my perspective over the past several years:

        The Day the Purpose of College Changed – After February 28, 1967, the main reason to go was to get a job

        Government expenditure on education, total (% of GDP) – United States

        Americans believe in higher education as a public good

        • Glen McGhee says:

          Jay, Sorry to harp on this, I just found these charts from Gumport’s “Academic Fault Lines: The Rise of Industry Logic in Public Higher Ed” that shows relatively flat state expenditures on hi-ed as a PERCENT OF STATE REVENUE — exactly what I was looking for.
          Also, enrollment explosion numbers.

          • Jay Collier says:

            Would that mean expenditures remained static while enrollment surged, thus resulting in a reduction in government support per pupil?

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Flat as a percent of state outlays – but at the same time the # of students ballooned?

          • sibyledu says:

            Gumport’s Table 5b includes only three states — California, Illinois, and New York — and covers the years 1973 through 1999. The current edition of SHEEO’s State Higher Education Finance Report shows more current data, and also shows appropriations per student FTE by state and by the national average. Those data show that nationally, the period 1980 through 1999 saw increases in appropriations per FTE from $9,068 to $10,207, an increase of 13.6%. But from 1999 through 2021, appropriations per FTE fell: bottoming out at $7,232 in 2012 and recovering to $9,327 by 2021. That’s a decline of 8.7% for 1999-2021, and a net increase for the period 1980-2021 of 2.9%.


          • Jay Collier says:

            That’s a great resource for state data. What do state expenditures plus federal look like?

        • “Americans believe in higher education as a public good”

          Some do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority do not, even many of those who agree that it has value.

  2. Tim Diette says:

    Thank you for your post. Insightful as usual. A tremendous communication challenge as in many cases the increasing sticker prices are allowing it to be more affordable to the majority of the income/wealth distribution. I’ve joked with students about how I am waiting for a school to announce they are setting their tuition at $1 million and then advertise themselves as giving the most grant aid in the country and that every student gets at least $900k per year in aid! Jokes aside, a serious issue and I agree that it does seem to be a significant psychological threshold. While net price calculators are helpful, I imagine more schools will start to be more explicit about promising scholarships such as U of Alabama-Huntsville (for merit) and may develop more tiers of need-based aid than the current promise programs so that a family earning $175k, for example, has a clearer sense of the net price without entering information into a calculator. In principle, we may want the sticker price to increase at a similar rate as growth in the top 5% of income/wealth so that these families would continue to pay the same % towards college and subsidize schooling for others. Given donations to schools by current parents, it is clear that some affluent families are willing to pay more! Thanks again.

  3. Jay Collier says:

    With links:

    Good points. These were the surveys that informed my comment:

    The Day the Purpose of College Changed – After February 28, 1967, the main reason to go was to get a job

    Government expenditure on education, total (% of GDP) – United States

    Americans believe in higher education as a public good

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Jay, thank you for those links. I think Will Bunch used that “Day College Changed” to anchor his higher ed book.

  4. sibyledu says:

    4% is probably too high an inflation rate. I looked at the “total price for in-district students living on campus” as collected in IPEDS for the five years most recently available (2017-18 through 2021-22) for the seventeen institutions you named, and the average annual increase over that period was 3.16%. After rising 3.60% and 3.82% in 18-19 and 19-20, the sticker price increased by just 2.33% in 20-21 and 2.88% in 21-22.

    If we use 3.16% as the rate of increase, then the “rollover year” would be 2027-28, when seven institutions would theoretically cross it. Obviously some institutions will try to resist crossing the barrier, and will set their prices at $99,920 rather than $100,340. But that’s a bit closer to your original forecast.

    This reinforces your point that there are lots of variables at play — and also your larger point that, regardless of whether “the singularity” happens in 2025-26 or 2027-28 or 2029-30, it will happen in the very near future.

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