US university fees make a lot of headlines nowadays, usually involving a string of rather daunting five-digit numbers. According to one report, the average cost of studying at a four-year private (non-profit) university in the US is now US$28,500 per year.
Of course, that’s only the average. At the top end are universities such as Cornell, which in 2011-12 is charging undergraduate fees of $41,541. Additional budget advice includes $7,800 per year for accommodation, $5,354 for food, $800 for books and resources, and $1,630 for other expenses, making a total of $57,125.
That means one year alone would cost significantly more than the average US annual salary, which was less than $40,000 in 2010. Multiply by four for the full course and, for most people at least, going to university in the US starts to look about as realistic as crashing at the White House while you look for a place of your own.
But before you abandon all hope of spending your student years playing baseball, going to the 'drive-thru' and generally carving out your own version of the American dream, be reassured: there may be a way.
Public versus private sector
First off, anyone familiar with the basic rules of averages will have realized that if some universities are charging well above $28,500 per year, others are charging much less. In addition, that average refers only to private universities, which are typically more expensive than public universities (or ‘colleges’).
State colleges have two rates: one for state residents and one for everyone else. The second (more expensive) category applies equally to applicants from other US states and from other countries.
According to student support organization College Board, the average fee for a public four-year university, including the out-of-state surcharge, is currently $20,770 per year. But almost half (44%) of the country’s full-time undergraduates are enrolled at a four-year college with fees of less than $9,000 per year.
The cheapest options, however, are public-sector two-year institutes, variously known as community, technical or city colleges. According to the government-run College Affordability and Transparency Center, the average tuition charge at a two-year public college is $2,527 per year, and the lowest just $560.
Admittedly, you can’t complete a full degree at a two-year college, but you can gain an associate’s degree. This counts as the first half of a bachelor’s degree, which can then be completed by transferring to a university for a further two or three years.
Having pointed out that not all private universities charge as much as Cornell, it’s also worth noting that not all public universities are cheaper options. Highly ranked public colleges such as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) are increasingly competitive, and increasingly expensive. UCLA advises international students to allow $55,000 per year, at the very least, to cover fees and other expenses.
Grants, scholarships and ‘need-blind’ admission
So studying in the US can cost almost any amount, it seems – from $560 to more than $55,000 per year. The situation is further complicated (in a good way) by the availability of various grants and scholarships, which means the amount you actually pay may be a lot less than the initial ‘sticker price’.
For example, UCLA says more than half of its undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid, with an average award of $17,000 per year.
The good news is that it’s getting easier to find out what you would really have to pay. Colleges are now legally required to include a fees calculator on their websites, allowing students to get a rough idea of how much financial aid they would receive. The government is also pushing for universities to provide more information about student loans, debts and future repayments.
You could actually end up paying less at a prestigious private university than at a more humble state college – because the former tend to have more money available for grants.
If you look at Harvard University’s website, you’ll see that tuition fees for 2011-12 are $36,305 per year, or $52,652 including accommodation. But in practice, the university charges on a sliding scale, based on a year-by-year assessment of each student’s finances.
In theory, there is no limit on the number of students eligible for aid, as Harvard operates a ‘need-blind’ application system. This means each applicant is assessed purely by academic ability, without consideration for his/her financial means.
So if you’re offered a place but can’t afford the fees, the university will make a contribution, calculated based on your parents’ combined income. In 2012-13, Harvard students whose families earn $65,000 or less per year will have their fees covered entirely, and even their flights home.
Not all colleges operate need-blind admission policies, and when they do, non-US students may not be eligible. But alongside Harvard, a number of other top universities do offer need-blind admission to international students, including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth College, Amherst College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that many other universities will extend need-blind policies to international students in the near future; according to Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt (2006) and DIY U (2010), many view international students as an important source of income.
All subjects are not equal: ‘differential’ fees
Under growing pressure to provide value for money, US universities are becoming more creative in the way they charge, increasingly opting for differential fees policies. This means charging different amounts for different courses, based on factors such as demand, actual course costs, and the salary level students can typically expect after graduating.
According to a recent report published by Cornell, differential fees were used by 143 US universities offering undergraduate degrees in 2010-11. The results of a second study, conducted by Arizona Board of Regents member Glen Nelson, show that more than half (57%) of public research universities now use differential fees for at least one undergraduate course.
To date, business students have been hardest hit, followed by those studying engineering and nursing. Nelson says business courses are targeted because demand is high, as are expected future salaries, and top teaching staff are expensive to recruit.
Concerns are already being raised about the impact of differential fees, which could mean some subjects are no longer accessible to those from lower-income backgrounds. Universities say part of the funds raised will be set aside for financial assistance – so in theory, only those who can afford it will end up really paying more.
It remains to be seen whether the US will reach a point of equilibrium between quality and access – retaining its position as a world leader in higher education, while continuing to attract and welcome students from all backgrounds.