Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/11/2011 7:01:37 AM ET 2011-07-11T11:01:37

Bates College is No. 1, and the small private college is none too happy about it.

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The elite Maine liberal arts school recently landed on the top of a new government list that ranks colleges according to tuition and required fees. With total fees of $51,300 for the 2009-2010 school year, Bates outranked every other private and public college, leading to a flurry of unflattering news coverage.

Bates officials say the list is misleading, because it was one of five schools that submitted its comprehensive fee for the year, which also includes room and board charges. Other schools on the list including tuition and fees but not room and board.

Bates spokesman Roland Adams said the school included the room and board fees because it gives prospective parents and students the most accurate picture of how much a year of education costs at the school, which boasts of small class sizes of just 20 students on average and a student-faculty ratio of 10 to 1.

Adams said it’s unfair to compare schools that list a comprehensive fee with those that only list tuition and other required fees.

“When you combine those two in one list, obviously the schools that practice the comprehensive fee approach are going to come out at the top of that list,” Adams said.

The other private, non-profit colleges that listed a comprehensive fee, and also landed at the top of the Department of Education list, were Connecticut College, Middlebury College, Union College and Colby College.

The hubbub over the Department of Education’s list is yet another example of how sensitive an issue fast-rising college costs have become in the post-recession era.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that just 22 percent of Americans think college is affordable to most people today. Meanwhile, some experts are sounding the alarm over rising student loan debt, which can accumulate quickly for young people, hobbling their financial start in life.

That’s especially worrisome in such a weak job market. The unemployment rate for college graduates was 4.4 percent in June. Although that’s much lower than the overall rate of 9.2 percent, it’s more than twice as high as when the recession began in December 2007.

The Department of Education said it created the interactive tool under a congressional mandate to help make college costs more transparent.

Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said Bates and the other schools  that provided the comprehensive fee had the option of reporting tuition and fees only but chose to list the comprehensive fee instead.

She said the department decided its only option was to mark those schools with an asterisk explaining the difference.

After the list was made public, Bates posted a rebuttal on its website in which it argued that the Department of Education rankings create a misleading impression of the cost of attending the school.

Adams, the Bates spokesman, said it would be very difficult to parse out just the tuition and fees portion of the school’s comprehensive annual cost to give prospective students a more precise comparison with other schools.

He noted that more than 90 percent of the school's 1,700 students live on campus. Students who choose to live off campus, and get permission to do so, can get a rebate on some of the comprehensive fee. The school declined to say how much that would be.

Bates is not considered the priciest school for students who get financial aid. The average net price for Bates students who receive financial aid was $20,897 in the 2008-2009 school year. That’s slightly higher than the national average for private, not-for-profit schools, which stood at $19,009 that year, according to the Department of Education figures.

Adams said about 40 percent of Bates students received some form of financial aid.

Bates is ranked 21st in the U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top national liberal arts colleges, and is highly competitive, with more than 5,000 students applying for some 500 spots in its freshman class.

Adams acknowledged that providing the type of individualized education the school prides itself on is expensive. But he said many students think it is worth it.

“The most important aspect, we feel, is value," he said. "Not just cost: value."

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