When will the first college or university charge six figures per year? A 2024 update

Bryan Alexander 2024-05-13

When will the first American college or university charge $100,000 or more to attend? What might that mean for higher education?

I first posed this question, a little wryly, back in 2018.  My intent six years ago was to scope out a symbolic marker, a milestone in higher education finance.  It was an extreme idea, given that the overwhelming majority of campuses wouldn’t charge anything like that amount, and because the widespread practice of tuition discounting meant a lot of students at those most pricy institutions wouldn’t pay that amount.  Besides, there’s nothing objectively different about charging $100K over 99K over 98; these are increments, margins. Yet the eye-popping six figure amount has the virtue of drawing a bead on the economics of elite campuses.  Considering it might also reveal something of how our culture responds to them.

I blogged this idea, like I said, back in 2018, and have followed it up fairly regularly ever since, as in 2021, 2022, and 2023.  I roughly forecast the most expensive universities crossing over the $100,000/annum barrier around the 2026-2027 academic year. Last year’s inflation adjusted my speculation a bit, nudging the crossover to 2025-26 for at least one university.

How do things stand now?

100000 on a speedometer

Here are the published prices for the most expensive American colleges and universities, for the upcoming (2024-2025) academic year, ranked from most expensive downwards.  These are undergraduate prices, not graduate ones, which tend to be higher.  They also do not reflect higher fees charged to international students, which also tend to be higher.  I’m using official figures as published on campus websites.

Let’s start with the colleges and universities charging more than $90,000 for total cost of attendance:

University of Southern California $95,225

Northwestern University $94,878 ($86,397 for resident assistants; $76,674 if living with relatives and commuting)

Colorado College $94,866 ($91,154 if students waive campus health plan)

Vanderbilt University $94,051 (my calculation; page doesn’t publish total)

New York University $93,184 ($74,932 for commuters)

Harvey Mudd College $93,131

Wesleyan University $92,994 (“(frosh)/$92,694 (continuing students)”)

Stanford University $92,892

Vassar College $92,580

Washington University in St. Louis $92,523

University of Pennsylvania $92,288 ($91,474 for living off campus; $76,076, living with family)

Cornell University $92,150

Wellesley College $92,060

Amherst College $91,930 (not including personal expenses or transportation; assuming the health care and tuition insurances aren’t waived)

Brown University $91,676

Claremont McKenna College $91,510

Dartmouth College $91,312

Wake Forest University $91,266

Kenyon College $91,010

Yale University $90,975

CalTech $90,822 (off-campus is higher, $94,380; living with parents is lower, $82,878)

Barnard College $90,928

Boston University $90,207

Franklin & Marshall College $90,079

A note for the record: that’s around two dozen (at least) American colleges and universities with sticker prices of more than $90,000 per year right now.

Just behind those is another tier of campuses charging in the upper $80K range:

Haverford College $89,568

Duke University $88,938

Boston College $88,632

Tulane University $88,266 (“$88,266+” is how it’s stated)

Lewis and Clark College $88,015 ($84,128 if health care insurance waived)

Reed College $87,010

Sarah Lawrence College $86,758

Carnegie Mellon University $86,812

Carleton College $86,478

Princeton University $86,700

Williams College $85,820

Swarthmore College $85,802

Oberlin College and Conservatory $85,496

Harvard straddles the tiers, publishing this qualified figure: “Total billed and unbilled costs $86,366-$91,166.”  Colby College does something similar with this bracketing: “$89,240 – $90,490.”

Some currently very expensive campuses haven’t published fees for next year, or none that I could find.  The University of Chicago’s bursar page lists “Tuition and Fees 2024-25 College (not available).”  Columbia University only displays this year’s. Tufts University is a tricky one.  Their website seems to only post data for 2023-2024 (for example) (another example), except for one page on international students.  There are figures out there for Tufts’ upcoming academic year, like $92,167, according to a recent article in the student paper. A Boston station thought the figure was higher, $95,888, but for international students.  CNN cited that figure as well.  A Tufts staffer confirmed to me in email that they haven’t yet posted the new numbers.

Moving on, and based on the other figures, what might we expect from the next several years?

Let’s do some basic, first order extrapolation.  We can assume that campus operating expenses will rise.  Consumer inflation now stands at 3.5% over the past year, according to official figures. In previous posts I used a rough 4% increase for institutional price rises. I upped that number to 5% last year, based on what I saw of price rises.  Using that number, the leading campus – USC – would charge $99,986.25 in 2025-2026, or just about as close to the 100K mark as one can get.  Using the same basic formula, Northwestern would set its price at $99,621.90, Colorado College $99,609.30, Vanderbilt $98,753.55, and so on.   Academic year 2026-2027 would see USC crack the boundary at $104, 985.56, along with Northwestern at $104,603, Colorado College at $104,589.77, and Vanderbilt $103,691.23.

Like I said, that’s a very simple extrapolation. I’ve smooshed together a lot of variables. For example, note how expensive medical costs are as part of total cost of attendance. Those will likely rise much faster than consumer inflation, especially if allied health continues to have problems attracting staffing.  Politically attuned readers will recognize some of the first- and second-tier campuses have been in the spotlight due to Gaza protests. Their administrations might find donations weakening, and thereby feel the need to raise prices at a faster pace in order to keep their finances healthy.

As I’ve said before, breaching the six figure barrier might prove to be a symbolic step too far for some of these colleges and universities. They might fear looking too greedy or expensive and take steps to hold the line at $99,999.  Alternatively, administrations might decide that the symbol either doesn’t matter – it’s just another number – or that they can benefit from the perception of offering an elite, de luxe service.  One might seek to be the first one the year after next, taking up a kind of leadership role.

And after that?  Perhaps we will grow accustomed to the six figure bracket, much as we accepted campuses charging above $90,000 without much complaint. Fees of $104,000 and up will simply express value.  Alternatively, six figures will become the new lazy river, a much-cited figure, then a cliche, symbolizing academic greed, waste, fecklessness, or whichever other feature the speaker wishes to evoke.

…and then we’re heading to a new milestone: campuses posting a total cost of attendance of $150,000 per year.

Let me offer a coda to this update. After posting about the idea for years, it seems that the thing has drawn some attention, possibly because we’re drawing close to the six figure boundary.  Last month Josh Moody wrote a fine article for Inside Higher Ed.  The piece includes commentary by me, along with links to my blog posts, as well as discussions with Sandy Baum and Julian Treves.  Moody covered a lot of ground.

The New York Times then followed up (gift link) and I admit to being ambivalent about the piece. On the positive side Ron Lieber focused on Vanderbilt University, digging deeply and getting a good mix of data and campus feedback.  I was glad to see economists Robert Archibald (a fine Future Trends Forum guest) and David Feldman cited.

On the other hand… the Inside Higher Ed piece appeared April 3rd.  The Times published their article two days later, on April 5th, then updated it several days later, on the 8th. There’s no mention of Josh Moody’s article, which is easily discoverable by search. IHE is also one of the two leading higher ed journals, widely known to everyone in the field.

Speaking of search, Googling for “six figures higher education total cost” and related strings also turns up this 2019 Atlantic article.  In it Alia Wong cites this contemporary Hechinger Report article and offers this forecast:

By 2025, the University of Chicago’s sticker price is predicted to pass the $100,000 mark, which would make it the first U.S. college where attendance costs six figures, according to new analysis by The Hechinger Report, an education-news outlet. The analysis suggests at least a handful of other U.S. colleges will follow suit soon after Chicago hits that milestone, including California’s Harvey Mudd College, New York City’s Columbia University, and Texas’s Southern Methodist University.

And given the way American higher education has been going, it likely won’t be long after that before six-figure prices are common among selective colleges and universities.

Further, and as you might expect, I am a bit irked that the Times piece didn’t mention my series of posts on the topic, as quick Googling brings them up.  In short, I wish the NYT had recognized that other people had been working on this topic, some of us for years.


(speedometer photo by Casper Kongstein)