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U.S. Department of Education lists colleges by price

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Tess Vigeland: Families trying to figure out just how much college is going to cost have some new tools. The U.S. Department of Education is out with a new website listing the cheapest and most expensive colleges in the country. Sitting Bull College in North Dakota gets the prize for lowest price at a public college.

The lists aren’t just a public outing, though. Schools that have jacked up their prices the most in the last few years will have some explaining to do to the feds. From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott looks behind some of the numbers.

Amy Scott: Some of the numbers are eye-popping. Consider Clayton State University in a suburb of Atlanta. Between 2007 and 2009, the public university’s net price rose more than 1,500 percent. Net price is the average cost of attending minus grants and scholarships.

John Millsaps: One could make an assumption that someone is increasing costs through the stratosphere at that institution.

That’s John Millsaps with the Georgia Board of Regents. He says that assumption wouldn’t be quite right. During the years in question, Clayton State went from being a commuter school with no student housing to one with dorms. So it wasn’t tuition, but dorms, that pushed the price up.

Millsaps: The important lesson I think with this is to simply look at the numbers and then start asking the questions of the institution to understand what the numbers mean and why.

Schools with big net price increases like Clayton State, or big tuition hikes like Arizona State, will have to explain those increases to the Department of Education. The idea is to give students and families more information — and to shame colleges into lowering prices.

Lucie Lapovsky says it’s probably not going to work. She’s a higher education consultant and former president of Mercy College in New York. Lapovksy says the biggest increases are mostly at state schools.

Lucie Lapovsky: Which increased their tuition in large part as a reaction to significant reductions in state support. They don’t have too many alternatives to maintain their revenue stream.

Another reason some schools jack up their prices is us. Tuition at private Jamestown College in central North Dakota jumped 39 percent, from $11,500 to $16,000 a year.

Polly Peterson is vice president for institutional advancement. She says the school raised its tuition to help pay for academic improvements, but also for appearances. Other colleges in the Midwest charge more.

Polly Peterson: And as we recruit students in that area, we do get that question. Parents will ask, “How can you offer the same quality if you’re not charging the same prices?”

But again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. At the same time Jamestown raised tuition, it increased scholarships, so the actual cost of attending — the net price — went up a lot less.

Sara Goldrick-Rab teaches education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She says colleges get away with this because students and their parents let them.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: They’re not walking away. And what I’m worried about is that, maybe students from low-income families will walk away. But the middle class and the upper class, they will continue to purchase it. And so the colleges and universities have very little incentive to do anything else.

Consumers armed with more information might start to fight back. The Department of Education’s new website gives some of that information, if you’re willing to do some digging.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace Money.

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