Cost of College in Colorado

If one digs deeply enough, there are some interesting data out there that are quite telling with respect to the true cost of college in Colorado. By carefully comparing precisely the same data points, it is possible to make a more meaningful comparison than one can get from the confusing sets of statistics thrown at families in many financial aid information sessions during campus visits.

For the following I went on the College Board website, and looked at the published information associated with cost and financial aid for several Colorado institutions. In particular, I chose to examine tuition, room and board; average percentage of need met; average amount of need-based scholarships and grants (assistance that doesn’t require repayment later); and average indebtedness at graduation.  Here is what I found for several key institutions for 2011:

CU-Boulder

  • TRB = $20,430
  • % need met = 90%
  • S&G = $7393
  • Grad debt = $22,683

CSU

  • TRB = $17,214
  • % need met = 73%
  • S&G = $10,114
  • Grad debt = $19,523

CO Mesa U

  • TRB = $15,205
  • % need met = 59%
  • S&G = $4460
  • Grad debt = NR

UNC

  • TRB = $16,373
  • % need met = 61%
  • S&G = $2097
  • Grad debt = NR

Ft Lewis

  • TRB = $13,602
  • % need met = 67%
  • S&G = $3884
  • Grad debt = $18,780

Colorado College

  • TRB = $50,450
  • % need met = NR
  • S&G = NR
  • Grad debt = NR

University of Denver

  • TRB = $48,273
  • % need met = 82%
  • S&G = $22,695
  • Grad debt = NR

Regis University

  • TRB = $31,188
  • % need met = 79%
  • S&G = $20,392
  • Grad debt = NR

Conclusions

One general observation is that there are some real educational bargains available in the state. The winner among the publics for percent of need met was CU-Boulder at 90%. The winner among the privates for the same measure was DU at 82%. Given the far higher cost of attendance at DU, however, this outcome translates into many fewer actual dollars.

I was impressed with the schools that disclosed everything, so hats off to CU, CSU and Ft. Lewis, and a big raspberry for CC, our most expensive institution, which discloses nothing.  Draw your own conclusions as to what might be revealed if they did share their info. I thought CSU looked darn good when their average need-based scholarship and grant amount was deducted from the tuition, room and board charges: $7100, the best outcome among all the schools. Regis looked darn good from this measure as well, coming out at $10,796, far better than DU at $25,578.

Of course this tells us nothing about what might be offered to the most desirable students by way of non-need-based offers; this can be potentially significant, but also highly variable.  So do your homework, and carefully scrutinize those financial aid award letters!

Is College Tuition Overpriced?

Two days ago I returned to Denver from having toured several selective midwestern private liberal arts colleges with one of my student clients. Each school is on the small side (averaging 2000 students or less), each has a reputation as a fine institution, with multiple factoids of distinction, such as freshman retention rates, graduation rates, percent employed after graduation, etc., and three were even profiled in that overly-touted 2006 tome Colleges That Change Lives.

Two of the four institutions charged students in the current (2010-11) first-year class just under $50,000 for tuition, room, board and fees, and two charged about $52,000. Are these charges worth it in terms of quality of experience and value of degree? Are they worth generating debt that will trail behind graduates and their families for years, perhaps decades to come? I think not, and I’m far from being the only college commentator who thinks so.

Many higher education journalists and bloggers observe that college costs have exceeded the inflationary spiral of health care costs in the U.S., and some forecast a course reversal that will rival what followed after the recent mortgage-bank crisis and consequent recession. So what will stop the craziness? Families that refuse the hype and demand accountability for fees, and students who agree to attend the best college that their parents (and they themselves) can reasonably afford.

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice given by one financial aid expert whom I recently heard at a public forum. He suggested that parents and students have an open talk about what is affordable well before a college list is assembled. Students can apply wherever they wish, within reason, but attendance is predicated on the total cost of attendance quoted by colleges after all discounting from grants, awards, and scholarships is reviewed.

The smart and talented student-client (a junior) who accompanied me on the trip hales from a regular middleclass Colorado family, and she has a sibling who will likely begin college during her third year of attendance. If costs continue to increase I am certain that she will be facing $60,000 in fees at the kind of college she hopes at attend, and her parents will have a dual burden for at least two years. I plan to advise her to apply widely, both in-state and out, and to seriously consider her best offers only. If this posture becomes the norm, colleges will need to take note, and adjust their pricing accordingly.

Some Nuances of Comparing Colleges

Last spring I was hired by a family with a singular purpose in mind: comparing the relative merits of the four colleges where their son had been accepted and offered varying amounts of scholarship money.  I was delighted with the assignment, for my specialization as a university administrator was student retention/success; hence the only thing I love more than working closely with students and families on the college planning process is digging deeply for institutional information and parsing the meaning of all manner of numbers and rankings – including some that aren’t widely known or reported. College-bound students and their parents are smart to examine and ask questions about standard institutional “outcome” statistics, such as retention and graduation rates. However, it is important to know that the numbers don’t always tell a simple and straightforward story.

As an exemplar of the most that possibly could be hoped for in this realm, Harvard University boasts a 97% retention rate for freshmen students, and a 98% six-year graduation rate. (When did reporting norms shift from four to six year grad rates, anyway?) The Ivy League and other colleges in the highly selective tier are SO selective in the admissions process that they can be ultra-choosy among the strong pool of students who apply, guaranteeing not just across-the-board academic strengths, but additional personal characteristics that bode well for success in their particular environment.

The only college in the state of Colorado that is regarded as most selective (although not exactly comparable to the NE Ivys) is Colorado College.  CC features a 94% freshman retention rate and an 85% six-year grad rate, and doesn’t cost all that much less than Harvard with a total estimated COA of about $46K.  Two of Colorado’s more selective institutions are the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Denver, once again mixing apples and oranges in terms of institutional types and sizes.  CU claims 84% freshman retention and 67% six-year graduation rates, while at DU the numbers are 87% and 74% respectively, just a shade better.  However, the comparative total costs of these two institutions are radically different: nearly $47K for DU and around $19K for CU Boulder at the in-state rate.  For those for whom cost is an issue, this is serious food for thought.

Now at Metropolitan State College of Denver  (soon to be renamed Denver State University, btw) the numbers look pretty darn miserable: 66% freshman retention and 21% six-year graduation. With numbers like these, college shoppers can’t be blamed for “dissing” the extreme bargain to be found in the yearly COA of just over $4000 at the still predominantly commuter school (most students arrange for and pay their own housing costs, so this is not included in the quoted amount).  To be sure, MSCD is ranked as a less selective college, and yet the numbers can be explained in part by the school’s special mission, which is as a college of opportunity serving large numbers of adults, low income students, and students of color.  The fact that 70% of Metro students have a job, and 30% of these a full-time job, explains more about both statistics, as does that fact that many students treat the college as a stepping stone en route to another college down the road. There is a lot of excellent instruction that goes on at Metro State (I know, as I’ve taught there since 1998), and if the school could eliminate those who don’t intend to stick around from the analysis, both retention and grad rates would look a whole lot better.

There is more to be shared about the college comparison game, but I’ve written the War and Peace of college planning blogs already, sorry! BTW, the student for whom I did the analysis ended up picking a fine school, but the least of the bargains in his mix of four schools (for reasons that I completely understood), and is now a proud University of Oregon Duck: quack!

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is a comprehensive educational consultant and college planning professional with 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration forming the foundation of her practice: www.pinnacle-educ.com