Every fall U.S. News and World Report does its annual review of America's Colleges. Their regular listing of information about America's colleges includes current tuition and fees. This and other college guides are excellent sources of tuition information but college guides are publishing what is really the sticker price. Your tuition could be quite different; it depends on your opportunities for bargaining.
When it comes to tuition the most important schools to watch are the state's flagship public universites. In Virginia, that is the University of Virginia; in Michigan it is the University of Michigan; in California it is UC Berkeley. Each state has at least one well respected state supported university. Every state's best students apply to these schools even though they are likely to apply to other colleges, both public and private. At the University of Virginia, 2006-2007 full time tuition for undergraduate students is $7,845.00. It is well below private colleges, and that includes private colleges with and without UVA's reputation of academic excellence.
Private schools must have higher tuition than UVA to meet their budgets, but they are at a disadvantage to get the best student's when they can decide to attend UVA at much lower tuition. To attract the kinds of students that can attend UVA, private colleges are often willing to offer discounted tuition to these students. Applicants who apply to private colleges are now routinely asked to list other colleges where they have applied. For the high gpa student it is an excellent idea to answer that question and include their state's flagship university. Private colleges want some students with the highest grades to keep up their reputation, which makes it likely they will offer a combination of options that sound like scholarships or grants, but amounts to a tuition cut. If they want someone enough, their package offer will reduce tuition to roughly the same amount as the best public colleges. They still accept other students with good academic records, but they do not offer much in the way of discounts for those with a 3 or 3.25 grade point average and without a number of AP courses.
The reality of competition for students in today's college market makes the flagship state colleges especially important in determining yearly tuition changes for all of America's colleges and Universities. For the renowned private colleges - Harvard, Yale, Princeton - they have enough applicants with the highest academic records that they can do whatever they want in offering tuition discounts. For the many fine private colleges without national name recognition there are not enough of the academic high achievers to go around and they literally have to compete for the best students. Because these colleges will try to match tuition at UVA for Virginia students, higher tuition at UVA and similar state universities allows private colleges to increase their tuition and decrease their discounts.
The importance of the flagship college shows up in a comparison of tuition for UVA and the College of William and Mary compared to the other state colleges in Virginia. The University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary are always toward the top of state tuition ranges. Both of these colleges have tuition above $7,000 a year in 2006. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia website lists William and Mary tuition at $8,490, but the Univerity of Mary Washington tuition is $6,084 and George Mason University is listed at $6,408. The other state colleges keep their tuition below UVA and William and Mary by $1,000 and maybe a little more. All the Virginia colleges employ faculty from the same pool of available Ph.D's,and it is unfair to conclude that one of Virginia's colleges really offers better courses or classes than another, but the public perception is that UVA and William and Mary are the academic allstars of Virginia Colleges. For the other state colleges to have a chance to get some of the best applicants, which they certainly do, they need to offer tuition a little less than the flagship colleges. This means that tuition increases at UVA and William and Mary give room for tuition increases at the other state colleges, but still allows for the continued tuition difference of $1,000 or a little more.
In sum, Tuition changes at the University of Virginia and other flagship state universities is a signal of tuition changes for all of America's colleges.