Value Investing for College

Value Investing for College

Several schools recently dubbed the best value by Kiplinger’s also charge the highest net prices in the nation. Shame.

I recently looked at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine’s latest list of the nation’s “best value” colleges and universities, and I found myself getting irritated. What particularly caught my attention was the list of the 100 private universities that the magazine considered the best values.

The list contained the names of some schools that routinely provide mediocre financial aid packages. And this isn’t just me talking. On Kiplinger’s honor roll were 13 institutions that also made a dishonor roll published by the U.S. Department of Education. Specifically, the private universities earned spots on the federal list because they charge the highest net prices in the nation.

Net price, of course, is what a family will pay after typical scholarships and grants are deducted. When shopping for schools, it’s the net price, not the sticker price, that’s meaningful. The majority of college students, after all, don’t pay full price.

Every year, the Department of Education releases the names of the 5 percent of private and state schools with the biggest net attendance costs in hopes that publicizing the names will change the behavior of the biggest price offenders. It’s a noble gesture, but I have my doubts that it will ever work. (If you would like to access the government’s list of the private and public institutions with the highest net prices, as well as the schools with the largest sticker prices, just Google “College Affordability and Transparency Center.”)

Here are the schools that made both Kiplinger’s best value list and the federal hall of shame:

·      Bentley University

·      Carnegie Mellon University

·      Catholic University of America

·      Fordham University

·      New York University

·      Northeastern University

·      Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

·      St. Joseph University

·      St. Louis University

·      Santa Clara University

·      University of Denver

·      Wake Forest University

·      Washington University St. Louis

As you’ve probably noticed, there are some highly popular schools on this list. New York University, for instance, is a frequent pick when teenagers are asked to name their dream schools. When I hear teenagers who need a lot of financial aid say they would love to attend a school like NYU, I cringe because their chances of receiving a good financial aid package would be slim.

The eight most expensive schools on the federal list are located on the East Coast. Private universities on either coast tend to be among the priciest institutions in the country. I think this reality reflects the fact that many students, who hope to attend private universities, want to live in metropolitan areas located on the coasts or in other major cities such as St. Louis, Mo., Atlanta or Chicago. Consequently, schools can set higher prices based on that common teenage desire. Santa Clara University, for instance, can charge $55,000 (tuition and room/board), in part, because it happens to be located in the Silicon Valley.

To illustrate how flawed Kiplinger’s list is, let’s take a look at New York University, which is known in the higher-ed world for its mediocre financial aid packages. I used NYU’s net price calculator to generate an estimated aid package for a student with tremendous financial need. (By federal law, all schools that participate in the federal financial aid program – and nearly all do—must offer a net price calculator on their websites that will provide users with a personalized estimate of what a school’s net price would be for them.)

When using NYU’s calculator, I pretended that I was a teenager whose family’s household income was a mere $30,000. The net price calculator suggested that the cost of NYU for this low-income child would be more than $29,400. Where is the value in that?

You are probably wondering why expensive schools like NYU made Kiplinger’s best value list. As a practical matter, if you scratch below the surface of any college ratings, whether they are produced by Kiplinger’s, U.S. News & World Report or some other source, you will find problems.

For this particular list, Kiplinger’s based 56.25 percent of its rankings on so-called academic qualities, such as its selectivity (what percentage of students does a school reject), test scores, admission yield, and four-year grad rates. Meanwhile, 43.75 percent was based on cost factors, such as the percentage of financial-aid need a school typically meets and total costs.

Here is what Janet Bennett Clark, a Kiplinger’s senior editor, said in response to my complaint about the magazine’s list: “Kiplinger’sgives more weight to academic criteria, our first measure of value, than to cost, so schools that do well on those measures, including freshman retention rate and four-year graduation rate, tend to score higher in our rankings than schools that do well on cost, such as the amount of need-based aid. NYU’s academic quality was a major factor in its position on our rankings.”

The problem with relying on “academic qualities” is that these factors have never been shown to lead to any particular academic outcomes. Will a child really receive a better education if the university she attends turns away 90 percent of its applicants rather than 50 percent or 25 percent? I don’t think so.

I do agree with Kiplinger’s, however, that it is important to find schools that represent the best value, but taking your cues from the magazine can be dangerous.

In my column next month, I will share ways that advisors and parents can evaluate colleges and universities financially without relying on questionable college rankings.

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