Hillsdale, Michigan. Thanks to Comcast (who says I never thank them), I noticed a headline from the Daily Beast today about the 20 most affordable colleges. The hook was trying to find a metric that would take all costs and scholarships into account:

Due to scholarships, loans, grants, and other forms of financial aid, different students pay vastly different tuition depending on the school, their financial situation, and their previous academic performance. So The Daily Beast determined which schools are the most affordable by using a simple metric. We compared schools based on the average net price students paid after need-based aid; this accounted for 80 percent of the final ranking. The rest was determined by the percentage of students who graduate within six years.

The list begins with #1 the Georgia Institute of Technology (average net price $8,445) and ends with #20 the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne (average net price $15,610). One of the arresting aspects of this list is that all of the institutions are not colleges but universities. Nothing wrong with that, but then why call the list the most affordable “Colleges”? Also, every institution on the list is a state or public university. And this means that the costs advertised at the Daily Beast to a national audience do not reflect that localist little feature of in-state and out-of-state tuition. In other words, the Beast neglects to consider that taxpayers are already subsidizing these institutions, and without that subsidy, tuition for the residents of Georgia or Illinois at #1 and #20 respectively would be much more comparable to the less affordable colleges.

For instance, here are tuition fees for these schools and a randomly selected private college:

Georgia Tech: $8,258 (resident) $27,562 (non-resident)
University of Illinois: $17,000 (resident) $32,000 (non-resident)
St. Olaf College: $40,700

Additional considerations that the Beast misses when counting the costs of college education is that many of its most affordable schools have division one athletic programs that bring revenues beyond what state legislators requisition. And because these are universities with graduate programs in the sciences, they receive additional funding from federal authorities for research. Of course, athletic revenues and government research grants have to cover the expenses of their programs. But if 10% of income is going to general university budgets, these “affordable college” have a leg up on the less affordable colleges. Nothing here that actually makes these sprawling universities “cheap.”

Nothing here to be shocked about in an Captain Renault sort of way, except perhaps how misleading all college rankings are.

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).