Why America's Most Expensive Colleges Could Hurt Your Wallet

Last Updated Oct 13, 2010 5:29 PM EDT

It just seems like yesterday that America's most expensive colleges were smashing the $50,000-a-year barrier. Now the most expensive colleges are breaking the $60,000 mark.

Sarah Lawrence which regularly makes the college-cost hall of shame, is the most expensive college in the country. Sarah Lawrence's tuition, room/board and fees adds up to $57,556, but that doesn't include books, travel and $1,780 accident and sickness insurance, which will easily boost the price past the $60,000 mark.

Sarah Lawrence and other obscenely expensive schools like to point out that many students receive financial aid. I'm not arguing with that point. I certainly have written many blog posts that point out that published college costs are meaningless in the higher-ed world.

In this country, however, only an infinitesimal number of colleges provide enough need-based financial aid to their students. The vast majority of colleges and universities can't bridge the gap between what most families can afford and what schools think they can pay.

Am I going to lose sleep knowing that some families will raid their retirement accounts or pillage their home equity to pay $60,000 a year so their kids can go to Sarah Lawrence? Absolutely not. If they want to commit financial suicide let them.

College Copy Cats

But here is what I do get angry about: It's not possible for Sarah Lawrence to routinely raise its prices in a vacuum. College students who live hundreds or thousands of miles away could get hurt by the price increases at this liberal arts paradise in Bronxville, NY.

Why? Because the higher-ed world is full of copy cats. When Sarah Lawrence, Bard College, Trinity College, Bates College and Ivy League institutions that rank among the most expensive schools raise their prices it causes reverberations among thousands of other schools.

Schools lower on the academic pecking order judge themselves by what the country's most prestigious and expensive schools are doing. If the elites continue to construct amazing facilities, shrink class sizes and maybe even offer maid service, the wannabes won't want to be left behind. The wannabes know they can't catch up to the college superstars, but they are terrified of losing ground. So they will raise their prices too.

Higher-ed shenanigans like this has made me very cynical. And worse, it's made millions of parents even more desperate.

Most expensive colleges image by mtsofan. CC 2.0.