When will the first American college or university charge $100,000 or more to attend for a year? What might that mean for higher education?
I first posed this question in 2018, during the Before Times. The gist was that a hypothetical Most Expensive University (MEU) would crack the six figure barrier around the academic year 2029-2030. To be clear, that price would be the published price, before any discounts kicked in. It would include tuition, the biggest number, along with room and board plus other fees. Some call this the annual “total cost of attendance.”
(You can read that full blog post for more terms and definitions, as well as good comments from readers.)
I checked into this forecast last year and found prices at the most expensive schools, candidates for MEU, rising on schedule.
How do things stand now?
Recent prices for the most expensive institutions seem to have stabilized, according to a CBS News article. Here are samples from the top:
University of Southern California $77,459
Harvey Mudd $77,339
University of Pennsylvania $76,826
Amherst College $76,800
Tufts University $76,492
Dartmouth College $76,480
Brown University $76,476
Northwestern University $76,317
University of Chicago $76,302
Wellesley College $76,220
That’s all close to where things stood last year.
Yet that CBS article looks like it’s out of date, once you look at campus webpages. As of today, USC’s official financial aid page declares its annual cost to be $85,648 ($75,576 if you live with family, and “[a]dd $450 New Student Fee for your first semester.”). Harvey Mudd now charges $82,236. U Penn is $85,738 ($83,134 if living off-campus, $70,558 if you live at home). Amherst: $80,250. Tufts: $84,600 ($74,600 for commuters). Dartmouth costs $83,802, Brown $83,683, Northwestern $87,804, University of Chicago $82,140, and Wellesley $81,000. So they’ve crossed over from the 70s into the 80s.
Last year I wrote that “It looks like the top are proceeding on schedule. We might expect them to all explore the 80,000s for the next few years, then rise up into the $90K band, and then into six figures.” We’re definitely in the eighties now.
But I might have been too conservative in my initial post. If that back of the napkin 4% annual increase holds firm, Northwestern University might be first across the $100,000 barrier in just five years:
Peers would follow closely, if these calculations hold up. Here’s USC, for example:
What might this mean?
The combination of high sticker price with high discount rates could yield a very diverse student body. This might create a stronger role for economic diversity in elite undergraduate education, as Joe Murphy observed.
Perhaps the moment when the first total cost of attendance leaps past $100,000 will stir a national discussion about higher education’s cost. Yes, it’s utterly true that we’re discussing prices for a tiny, tiny slice of America’s academic ecosystem, less than 1% of the campuses maintained in the United States, yet the symbolism may be potent. We know the public is fascinated by sticker prices, while tuition discounting remains shadowy. We also know the public follows academia’s steep hierarchy, paying outsized attention to its upper reaches. Will the conversation build on Republicans’ growing anti-academic animus, and so yield more subsidy-cutting and speech-censoring?
To take a step back, how might these forecasts err? They are, after all, simple extrapolations, albeit fed with correct data. In their simplicity extrapolations can easily run afoul of reality’s complexity. For example, it’s possible that adding a digit to total cost of attendance will prove to be a psychological and political barrier that few want to breach, at least for a while, as John Sener noted back in 2018.
Your predicted date may be delayed for a couple of years by schools not wanting to go over that threshold, but eventually the simple (compound) math will overtake their concern. A few schools might be canny about it for while (as Princeton did in 1981 with its $9,994 price tag).
In which case the milestone advances to a point later in the decade, perhaps in line with my original estimate.
In that original post I suggested some other ways to push back that date, such as an increase in state funding or more severe cuts to campus budgets. Both of those are possible, of course, but how likely? State governments are generally recovering from the pandemic, yet remain deeply constrained by competing budget lines: pensions, infrastructure, policing, K-12, and health care. Budget cuts might be hard to sell in institutions with elite reputations.
On the other hand, inflation is now soaring. It stands this month at 8.3%, according to the federal government, and that exerts all kinds of upward pressures on university prices. Start with increased heating and travel costs, then add the worries felt by staff, faculty, and student workers who see their compensation dwindle as their prices soar. Further, in this situation, how many state governments will feel like expanding how much they spend on public higher ed? In other words, we could see the first MEU cross over into six figures in the short term, unless inflation falls back.
I’ll try to check in on this topic same time next year, and so on, until at least one academic institution attains the milestone.