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Bates: "Most Expensive College" Rank Misleading
07/05/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

News outlets around the country have dubbed Bates College in Lewiston the most expensive private, non-profit school in America. That's after the federal government last week unveiled a public website pricing a Bates education at $51,300 for the 2009-2010 school year. The college has been doing damage control in the days since, pointing out that its ranking has to do with the fact that it includes room and board in its price tag.

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Colby College in Waterville is also in the handful of schools that uses this method, and comes in fifth on the list. Education experts say, the rankings--misleading or not--could influence prospective students and their families.

"For low-income students who are discouraged from going into higher-ed because of just the sticker price, you could be scaring some students away," says Joni Finney, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Finney says the Maine colleges actually provide substantial financial assistance--Bates says 40 percent of its students get it. But Finney says Bates may have to stress that fact more. "It probably means that you need to work a lot harder with students to let them know exactly much it will cost, given their income."

But Jane Wellman, who studies college costs, says that being labeled a high-priced college is not necessarily a bad thing in the eyes of wealthier families. "They equate quality with prices," she says.

Wellman heads The Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability. She says studies in recent years have shown that colleges that try to keep prices down don't see more enrollment.

"In fact they may hurt the enrollment demand from the families who can afford to pay their tuition," Wellman says. "They think, 'Ah, look it--these guys lowered their tuition this year; that must mean they've cut back on quality, and I'm in the market where I want to pay whatever it takes to send my kid to a high-quality school.'"

Education experts agree, though, that the federal website--aimed at providing transparency in college costs--presents a misleading picture of Colby and Bates, one that officials seem eager to dispel.

"You don't want to be on that kind of list," says Sally Baker, vice president of Colby. Baker says that without probing into the college cost information, people are just left with the headlines. "I just think it's a bit too much of a soundbite: "'Wow, you people, you're the most expensive.' In Maine, sometimes that can be seen as, 'Who do you think you are?'"

Baker says there's a reason a Colby education costs as much it does--$50,320: small classes, top-notch faculty, excellent facilities. But at the same time, Baker says it's important to point out that Colby would not be in the top five if it did not package tuition, room and board and fees all together into a comprehensive fee.

In fact, a spokesman for No. 24, Bowdoin College, reports that the net cost of attending the Brunswick school in 2009-2010 was $50,900--a tad higher than Colby.

Officials at both Colby and Bates say they are considering submitting tuition costs for the next federal survey, rather than presenting a comprehensive fee.

"Obviously, we would not come up in the same place on the list," says Bates spokesman Roland Adams. "But one could ask, why doesn't the Department of Education require all schools to present their total costs so that you have a comparison of the overall costs for each school?"

Adams says a comprehensive fee presents a truer picture to students and their families. Regardless of where Colby, Bates and Bowdoin fall on the list in the future, the fact is they are still are among the country's most expensive institutitions.

Jane Wellman of the Delta Project says that the cost of a private college education is rising faster than inflation. But she says the costs reflect consumer demand.

"That's what it costs," she says. "Nobody's telling them they have to go to Bates. They could go to a public college and pay a whole lot less. If they want to go to an elite, private, liberal-arts college where they have a small class size, that's what they're going to pay."

Officials say they don't know yet how the rankings will affect applications. But Roland Adams says Bates received a record 5,196 applications for just over 500 places in next year's entering class.

In the interest of full disclosure, the presidents of Bates, Bowdoin and Colby Colleges all sit on MPBN's Board of Trustees.



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