College seems expensive? It's all about perspective

I wrote a column once about the cost of raising kids and got an estimate from my financial planner on the price tag for four years of college starting in 2027, the year Ainsley graduates from high school.

The projected tab to go to Northwestern at that time was $475,000. Almost half a million dollars. At first I was shocked. Then I tried to convince myself that she seems more of a state school kinda girl.

A visit to Illinois Wesleyan University for homecoming one year dispelled that notion. Ainsley fell in love with the school both her parents attended. (Or maybe it was the sorority house with minimal adult supervision that attracted her!)

Either way, the price tag in 5 1/2 years will be steep. The annual cost right now is $66,262, including room and board and fees. Seeing as my entire four years there cost about $40,000, this seems like quite a lot. But it's all a matter of perspective.

Just take a look at the cost at the 50 most expensive colleges in the U.S., as ranked by the National Center for Education Statistics and reported by CBS News in August. The first college on the list, Landmark College in Putney, Vt., comes in at $73,700. It took me a minute to realize that was the cheapest of the most expensive colleges. The prices just went up from there.

The list included several names you'd expect to see - Yale (No. 31 at $74,900), Brown (No. 7 at $76,476), Dartmouth (No. 6 at $76,480).

Two schools in Illinois were in the top 10 - University of Chicago at No. 9 ($76,302) and Northwestern at No. 8 ($76,317).

The list included a number schools from D.C. (not American University, where I went for grad school) and California, perhaps because of the cost of living in the nation's capital and the Golden State. The ranking includes residential charges along with out-of-state tuition and annual fees.

There also were some surprises on the list. I didn't realize Washington University in St. Louis (No. 44) was $74,096 a year. Or that the University of Pennsylvania (No. 2) was $76,826.

What was the most expensive college on the list? Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

The school, which bills itself as one of the premier engineering, science and mathematics colleges in the United States, is listed at $77,339. Add in a meal plan, personal expenses and books and supplies, and the cost jumps to $84,896, according to the school's website.

Of course Harvey Mudd is ranked No. 2 for undergraduate engineering programs at non-doctorate granting institutions by U.S. News and World Report and No. 1 by Washington Monthly in a list of U.S. Colleges and Universities that contribute to the public good.

The school is also listed in The Princeton Review's 2023 college guide, The Best 388 Colleges, which ranks institutions in 50 separate categories ranging from lab facilities to financial aid to campus food. Harvey Mudd ranked No. 9 in the category "students study the most."

Wesleyan is also listed in The Princeton Review, although I can't seem to find out the category without buying the book. And now that I know it's $18,634 a year cheaper ($74,500 over four years) to be a Titan than a Mudder, Wesleyan is looking a lot more affordable. And if it ranks high in the campus food category, well, that will only increase Ainsley's desire to go there.

- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at [email protected].

Author Bio

Author photo

Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean