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"Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall," that oft-repeated F. Scott Fitzgerald quote from his most famous tome, feels like a seasonal sentiment that rings particularly true for the millions of eager freshmen who have settled into colleges and universities around the country. By now members of the Class of 2026 have endured orientation, decorated their dorms, and snoozed through their first few weeks of lectures. Years of extracurricular activities, pricey consultations, and obsessing over rankings have paid off. They are survivors of the "dumpster fire" that was the 2022 application process; the fortunate ones who prevailed over shockingly low admission rates.
And so begins a fresh chapter of their privileged lives. There are new friends to be made, clubs to join, all-nighters to pull, professors to impress, parties to attend. And these experiences are meant to be so life-altering—and lead to such wondrously lucrative careers—that all will be worth the tuition sticker shock.
Remember when $50,000-a-year for an elite private institution raised eyebrows? Good luck finding one nowadays for less than $80,000. And these are just the starting rates (tuition, room and board, fees). As reported last year, universities have been locked in a luxury amenities arms race—and this certainly doesn't come without a price. Factor in where a school is located and costs can quickly balloon. A student with New York City as a backyard, for example, will find plenty more reasons for a well-padded expense account than one who goes to a college in Ithaca. But fees can add up even if your kid goes rural. Are they interested in Greek life? That will also cost you.
Parents of the Class of 2026 may find some solace in the fact that the prices they are paying now may seem like a bargain in a few years. These numbers tend to go in only one direction (since 1963, college tuition has seen a 747.8% increase). "According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the cost of college is outpacing inflation by nearly 30 percent in the public sector, and nearly 20 percent in the private sector," says the team at IvyWise.
As we did recently for an updated list on the Alt-Ivies, T&C consulted IvyWise again for another directory: the most expensive colleges and universities in the country right now when factoring in the cost of living. The college counseling service's list—and their reasoning behind each school's inclusion—is below.
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Sticker price (tuition, room & board, fees): $79,760
"Boston is one of the most desirable cities in the United States, especially for international students, who account for more than 25% of BU’s population. Studies have suggested that international students spend more money in the city compared to their domestic peers, but are unable to be employed like their domestic counterparts while on campus. From shopping on Newbury Street to dining out in Brookline, students will never run out of things to discover while enrolled at BU. While the majority of them will live on campus for all four years, a significant portion will venture out to rent an apartment in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. More than sixty percent of students who apply for need-based financial aid are strapped with loans."
Pictured: Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, better known by her nom de guerre AOC, graduated from Boston University in 2011.
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Sticker price: $81,680
"Columbia’s position in upper Manhattan certainly contributes to its overall cost but students from households earning less than $150,000 per year are guaranteed to attend tuition-free. An endowment of more than $14 billion allows for this kind of policy. For families that do not meet this threshold, the full pay cost tops the charts. The average one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side exceeds $4,000 per month, while the likes of Zabar's and Whole Foods are tempting, upmarket dining options. Columbia, for its part, has morphed to accommodate a particular quality of life for its students, constructing three new apartment-style residence halls, including a 34-story building at the corner of 125th Street and Broadway, and a new athletics center—glossy perks that allow you to see your tuition dollars at work."
Pictured: Former President Barack Obama, who graduated from Columbia in 1983 (he transferred his junior year from LA's Occidental College) with a BA in political science and English literature.
George Washington University
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Sticker price: $78,120
"Even before popular shows like Scandal and Veep aired, DC was a destination college town for thousands of incoming students each year. With an abundance of notable restaurants like Sushi Nakazawa, Le Diplomate, St. Anselm, and Barcelona, plus cultural institutions from the National Gallery to Hillwood, there is always something to eat, visit, or do in the nation’s capital. One of the main draws for students has consistently been the availability of jobs in a variety of sectors, but what many don’t realize is that the most sought-after posts are unpaid internships on Capitol Hill, which has a reputation for running on the power of its interns. A silver lining: While George Washington’s endowment doesn’t allow them to meet the need of everyone who qualifies for financial aid, the university does award merit money to a number of students who did not apply for financial aid."
Pictured: In August 2022, a day after President Joe Biden announced his plan to cancel $10,000 in student debt, activists from GWU gathered in front of the White House.
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Sticker price: $81,360
"Vassar, founded in 1861 as the second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the U.S. and one of the famed Seven Sister colleges, enjoyed an informal relationship with Yale University before becoming coeducational in 1969. Due to its WASP roots and high profile (its campus serves as the filming location for Essex College in HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls) it is one of the most expensive colleges in the state of New York, even rivaling Manhattan-based institutions like Columbia and NYU. While Vassar has generous financial aid offerings and meets 100% of demonstrated financial need, it does not offer merit aid packages for higher income families unlike fellow Seven Sisters schools Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Smith, which each offer a limited number of them. This means that Vassar students whose families' annual incomes are more than $270,000 will likely pay sticker price. Additionally, there is plenty to do in Poughkeepsie to stay busy but students may be frequently tempted to take the two-hour Metro North to New York City to take advantage of its many expensive activities."
Pictured: Vassar alums Meryl Streep (Class of '71) and Lisa Kudrow (Class of '85) at the college's graduation ceremonies in 2010, where the latter gave the commencement address.
Washington and Lee University
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Sticker price: $78,670
"Greek Life dominates the campus at Washington and Lee, with approximately 75% of students participating in fraternities and sororities. Like at other colleges and universities, there are many fees associated with participating, of which students may not be aware until having joined a chapter. They can include a fee to rush (or engage in the recruitment process), followed by new member initiation fees (which can exceed $1,000) and chapter fees, in addition to the fees each organization charges, which are often more than $4,000, plus the exorbitant room and board fees if they choose to live in the chapter house. It’s no wonder why most Washington & Lee seniors live off campus after meeting their three-year on-campus housing requirement, where they may be able to find much more affordable housing costs in the local area."
Pictured: Tom Wolfe, legendary journalist and author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, turned down Princeton in favor of Washington and Lee, where he majored in English, helped found a literary magazine, and received his BA in 1951.
New York University
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Sticker price: $78,440
"Like Columbia, NYU will consistently appear on this list because of its trendy and desirable location in Manhattan. If students want to leave the apartment-style (read: bathrooms in each suite or room) dorms, which nearly 80% them do, they can expect to pay a steep premium to live in or near Greenwich Village, home to several celebrities (Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, most famously) and some of the most expensive rent prices in the city. While the school offers discounts to cultural events like Broadway shows and museums, these will quickly add up if students want to take advantage of all that NYC has to offer. NYU’s financial aid has gotten better in the last few years, but there are graduates from decades ago who are still paying off loan debt. And though its endowment is more than $5.8 billion, NYU also has one of the largest populations of any private university in the world—this equates to one of the lowest endowment-per-student ratios among highly selective colleges, a major factor in its inability to give generous financial aid packages."
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Sticker price: $81,702
"Pepperdine is another example of an amenity-rich university with a largely affluent student population. Sweeping ocean views serve as the backdrop of their first-year residence hall (apartment-style, of course), and their college town is Malibu, a once sleepy bohemian enclave turned ultra high-end destination with hotspots like Malibu Country Mart and Nobu. It’s no surprise that Pepperdine commands a very high annual cost, especially since it’s a newer (est. 1937) and more tuition-driven institution. For reference, Harvard’s $53.2 billion endowment is approximately 51 times greater than Pepperdine’s, meaning those tuition dollars are a clear necessity for the latter's financial future."
Santa Clara University
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Sticker price: $74,646
"Santa Clara is no ugly stepsister to its attention-grabbing neighbor to the north (Stanford). Its pristine, perfectly-manicured grounds serve a population of just around 9,000, giving students ample opportunity and space to soak in the California sun on the quads—or in the on-campus pools. A recent $100 million gift established the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, a shiny new home for the School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Science. SCU has made quite a name for itself in recent years, climbing the rankings at breakneck speed and now falling just outside the U.S. News list of top 50 universities in the nation. Yet another young school with a more modest endowment than its East Coast counterparts, Santa Clara relies heavily on tuition to make ends meet and sustain the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality that demands colleges 'show well' to prospective students."
Pictured: California Governor Gavin Newsom enrolled at Santa Clara on a partial baseball scholarship and graduated in 1989 with a degree in political science.
University of Vermont
Sticker price: $57,244 (out-of-state)
"The University of Vermont’s cost of attendance for both in-state and out-of-state students is significantly higher than the national average. While 45% of in-state students attend UVM tuition-free, more than half of the entire student body graduates with loans. For those who choose to participate in Greek Life, fees can total more than $6,000 per semester. On-campus housing is also not guaranteed for all four years and the average cost of an apartment in Burlington is significantly higher than the Vermont average. The plus side is that students are rewarded with one of the best hidden gem college towns in the country. And it's a paradise for skiers and snowboarders, though even with student discounts on season passes, weekends spent zipping down runs can add up quickly (a resort day pass can be as much as $200, not including equipment rentals)."
Sarah Lawrence College
Sticker price: $78,104
"More than once, Sarah Lawrence has held the highest advertised tuition price tag, and even when it doesn't claim the #1 spot it remains high on the list of the most expensive colleges. Its justification? It has one of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios (9:1) and uses the donning system–inspired by the Oxford tutorial system–which allows students to work closely with an advisor through a self-designed curriculum. This mix of academic autonomy and the ability to develop relationships with faculty members and mentors inspire many to apply. But given its location in Bronxville—which has a plethora of restaurants and shops and is a short train ride to Manhattan—and the college’s small endowment ($140.5 million), it's no wonder Sarah Lawrence relies on tuition revenue."
Pictured: Sarah Lawrence alumna Barbara Walters (Class of '51) on her last day of co-hosting the Today Show, 1976.
University of Southern California
Sticker price: $82,162
"A new construction project with a 2024 opening date will add 252 hotel rooms, 252 housing units for students, 78 apartments, and 84,000 square feet of commercial space for retail, restaurants, and offices to USC's ever-expanding campus. Tommy the Trojan stands proudly at the center of it all and while he is currently cast bronze, it may be more appropriate to fashion him out of gold. The very LA vibe that couples flashy wealth with the not-trying-too-hard sensibility can be found all around campus. As to why the university’s costs have skyrocketed, look no further than President C.L. Max Nikias, who commanded a Wall Street-worthy $7.6 million payout when he stepped down in 2018. To support the expansion, massive administrator salaries, and cushy amenities, Trojans are expected to pay astronomical costs that residents of downtown LA would never have imagined even a few years ago."
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Sticker price: $80,217
"Very few colleges can boast a location as exciting and fun as New Orleans, where the range of restaurants, bars, and cultural activities is hard to top. The sheer number of extracurricular opportunities makes for a unique, but expensive, college experience: breakfast beignets at Cafe Du Monde, grilled oysters at Drago’s, live jazz shows at Preservation Hall, to name just a few. Meanwhile, the visibility of Tulane’s academic programs and service opportunities also attracts an affluent applicant pool. While Tulane’s financial aid packages have improved significantly over the past few years, its relatively slim endowment (under $2 billion) means it still does not meet 100% of need, and more than half of students who apply for financial aid take out loans to supplement grants. Tulane also uses merit aid to entice students who do not qualify for need-based aid to enroll, which is a common practice used by many other expensive schools to boost their rankings."
Southern Methodist University
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Sticker price: $79,730
"SMU is hot right now and rightfully so. Nestled in a tony neighborhood near the heart of Dallas, its campus has plenty to keep students entertained. They can spend a weekend exploring one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Spanish Art outside of Spain, conveniently housed right on campus at the Meadows Museum, or venture out to Highland Park Village for designer shopping and restaurants. They will also be drawn in by the private university's school spirit: SMU’s fraternities are known to host extravagant tailgates to cheer on the Mustangs. Nearly half of the student body participates in Greek Life, but be warned: joining a sorority or fraternity has “financial commitments," including, but not limited to, a new member fee, an initiation fee, semester membership costs, and a technology cost, all on top of the college Greek chapter fees, that can run as high as $3,500 a semester, depending on the organization—and that doesn't even include housing (the school does not release this information but it's worth noting that SMU's sorority houses cost upwards of $6 million to construct)."
Pictured: Hope Hicks graduated from SMU in 2010 and went on to serve in Donald Trump's administration as the White House Communications Director, and later as Counselor to the President.
University of Hawaii
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Sticker price: $40,793 (out-of-state)
"Whether students are from the Aloha state or the mainland, it’s going to cost them to attend college in paradise, as the University of Hawaii’s tuition is higher than the national average for both in-state and out-of-state coeds. Tuition and fees alone are not enough to land the school on this list: Hawaii has the highest cost of living index in the United States, so hidden costs will add up quickly. Many day-to-day items, including food, clothing, cleaning supplies, and toiletries have to be shipped over from the mainland, so it’s not uncommon to pay $9 for a gallon of milk here. This also translates to exorbitant prices at restaurants, both at high-end and even fast food establishments (here, a McDonald’s Big Mac, burger only, is more than $5). Gas prices in Hawaii are among the highest in the country, but luckily students won’t have to drive far to enjoy the beaches, hiking, and many other free outdoor activities."
Sticker price: $80,210
"The darling of the Southern schools, Vanderbilt has money baked into its name. As the only private university in the Southeastern Conference, expect to see plenty of girls in their pearls cheering on the Commodores. Nashville’s dining, music, and shopping scene is not only a draw for bachelorette groups but college students as well. A Vanderbilt student will likely request a significant allowance to take advantage of all the Music City has to offer. That’s not to say that the campus isn’t enticing in and of itself—Vanderbilt has heavily invested in recent capital projects, including several new residential colleges, with the latest, Rothschild College, opening this fall. Here, residents will study and socialize in a Great Room with architecture harkening to the Ivies and partake in weekly dining and conversational gatherings. While residential colleges are a unique attribute of Vanderbilt, with upscale amenities that are attractive to students, beware of a potential rise in tuition to support the multiple building projects going on at Vanderbilt."
Leena KimAssociate EditorLeena Kim is an associate editor at Town & Country, where she writes about travel, weddings, arts, and culture.