The Price You Pay: Tuition Comparisons

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Weighing College Costs

There was a time not long ago when many students (and parents) considering colleges were willing to accept the adage, 'The more you pay, the more you get.' Young people often chose schools based on prestige without regard for their costs in the belief that a degree from an elite school would translate into professional advantages.

Difficult economic times, however, have changed the college selection process for many students and their families. Increasingly, university costs are factoring more heavily into school decisions. Today, many families are first and foremost looking for high-value postsecondary options, rather than considering offers exclusively from the 'best' institutions.

Below is a comparison of tuition and living costs at four types of higher education institutions - an Ivy League school, a liberal arts college, a large state university and a small public school. For this analysis, high-performing schools from college rankings by U.S. News & World Report were chosen to represent each category of institution.

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Columbia University

Columbia University is an Ivy League institution located in New York City. Enrolling over 6,000 undergraduate students, the private institution is renowned for its academic programs in a wide range of disciplines. The school perennially performs well in rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report.

In addition to being one of the best schools in the U.S., Columbia is also one of the most expensive. Tuition, fees, living costs and other expenses bring the total cost to a little over $64,000 per year. But this high cost comes with features that make the price justifiable. For example, the school has an impressive student faculty ratio of 6:1 - nearly 80% of classes feature 20 students or fewer. Students have plentiful opportunities for one-on-one mentoring with professors.

Columbia University
Tuition and Fees (2013-2014) $49,659
Room and Board (2013-2014) $11,978
Books and Personal Expenses (2013-2014) $3,028

Conventional wisdom among some is that students looking for value in education will have to exclude elite private institutions like Columbia from consideration. This is not, however, necessarily true. Private schools tend to have much larger endowments than public institutions, which allow them to offer more substantial grant packages to students.

If you're interested in top-tier schools, it's a good idea to at least apply and research financial aid options. Depending on the student aid package offered, attending a school like Columbia may be comparable in price - or even cheaper - than enrolling at a state school.

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Vassar College

Interested in a liberal arts college with a storied history? Look no further than Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie, New York. This institution is home to about 2,400 students, nearly all of which (94%) live on campus. The school is set on 1,000 acres in the picturesque Hudson Valley.

Vassar is consistently rated among the finest liberal arts colleges in the country, and the school's price tag reflects its prestige. Even with a cost of more than $60,000 per year, the school is the first choice of many high school grads looking to pursue a world-class education in a nurturing environment. Featuring a student-faculty ratio of 8:1, the school is known for providing students with a very personalized education experience.

Vassar College
Tuition and Fees (2013-2014) $47,180
Room and Board (2013-2014) $11,180
Books, Supplies and Personal Expenses (2013-2014) $2,960

As noted above, it's important not to let a high sticker price dissuade you from applying to a school like Vassar. The college features a need-based financial aid policy and meets 100% of accepted students' calculated need.

Another option for students interested in the liberal arts college experience: Enrolling in a small public school. Institutions like the Evergreen State College (in Olympia, Washington) with an undergraduate student population of about 4,000 and the State University of New York at Geneseo, with an undergraduate student population of about 5,300, offer intimate liberal arts atmospheres at a fraction of the price.

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University of California - Berkeley

The University of California - Berkeley is among the most highly rated public institutions in the United States. The school's Bay Area campus is the academic home of more than 25,000 undergraduates. Long known as a bastion for progressive ideas, Berkeley has a tradition of social activism and community service.

Among the areas of academic strength at the University of California - Berkeley are engineering, computer science, economics, political science and the biological sciences. With top-tier programs in these and other disciplines, the school features a sticker price of about $33,000 for in-state students. For nonresidents, however, college expenses of about $56,000 are comparable to tuition and living costs at an Ivy League institution.

University of California - Berkeley
Tuition and Fees (2013-2014) $12,864 (resident), $35,742 (nonresident)
Room and Board (2013-2014) $15,180 (resident and nonresident)
Books, Supplies and Personal Expenses (2013-2014) $2,656 (resident and nonresident)
Total On-Campus Cost (2013-2014) $33,320 (resident), $56,198 (nonresident)

If you want to attend school closer to the eastern side of the country, two other high-performing schools - University of Virginia ($12,458 residents) and the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor ($13,819 residents) - are quality public institutions that feature tuition under $20,000.

While public institutions like the University of California - Berkeley often do not have the grant resources of private schools, financial awards are available. If a high-powered state school interests you, be sure to apply for scholarships and talk to advisors about what financial aid options might be available.

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College of William and Mary

Not all public institutions are large universities like UC - Berkeley. The College of William and Mary, with an undergrad population of just over 6,000, provides a close-knit community of students. The school is situated on a leafy campus in Williamsburg, Virginia - a city replete with history from the Colonial Period.

Founded in 1693, the College of William and Mary is the second-oldest university in the United States. However, the school has a lot more than tradition on its side. Robust academic programs and a student-faculty ratio of 12:1 help ensure the college performs well in college ratings. U.S. News & World Report, for instance, ranks the school sixth among public universities for 2014.

College of William and Mary
Tuition and Fees (2013-2014) $15,464 (resident), $37,852 (nonresident)
Room and Board (2013-2014) $9,816 (resident and nonresident)
Additional Expenses (2013-2014) $3,050 (resident), $3,300 (nonresident)

Perhaps the most impressive accolade bestowed upon the College of William and Mary is its designation as a 'Public Ivy.' With annual costs under $27,000 a year for Virginians, the school definitely is a bargain. Nonresident costs come in at about $49,000 - below rates one typically finds at traditional Ivy League schools. Additionally, College of William and Mary recently began the 'William and Mary Promise' in 2013. This program is intended to help incoming Virginians reduce loans and increase available grants, thus reducing overall college costs.

Before committing to enrollment at any school, students should weigh the academic merits and financial aid packages of each school that accepts them. Students may also meet with financial aid advisors and academic advisors to get a full picture of the cost to attend their school of choice.

Need additional help in your college selection process? Learn about different ranking systems for evaluating universities.

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