Despite being home to the world's most expensive universities, the United States offers some of the most affordable options for higher education in the world, with average costs at its state universities comparing well with public institutions in other countries.
That is one of the findings highlighted in a new report, "Global Higher Education Rankings 2010: Affordability and Accessibility in Comparative Perspective," published on Wednesday by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto-based consulting firm.
Alex Usher, president of the firm and lead author of the report, said that "from abroad, the American system is synonymous with high costs, but that's not really American education, at least not the cheaper options."
Mr. Usher underscored the importance of distinguishing between affordability, which he defined as involving measures of a student's or a family's ability to cover costs associated with attending university, and accessibility, which refers to the relative size and composition of a country's student body.
How countries fare in terms of their rankings on the two variables can diverge considerably.
One key finding, the report notes, is that the links between affordability and accessibility "are not as straightforward as some policy makers and analysts believe."
"Some countries are good at both, or bad at both, or good at one and not the other. There is a lot that goes into accessibility beyond cost," said Mr. Usher.
Finland, for example, ranks first in terms of both affordability and accessibility, but the United States, which places 12th in terms of overall affordability, fares much better in terms of overall accessibility, ranking in fourth place. Germany, on the other hand, places third in affordability but much lower, in 11th place, in accessibility.
The report is the follow-up to a similar survey Mr. Usher and others produced five years ago. The publication of the new rankings coincides with growing focus by governments and policy makers across the world on issues of affordability and access in higher education.
Many countries have set explicit targets for increasing participation rates in higher education, even as the cost of attending university has risen.
In some countries, the landscape is especially fluid. An independent review in Britain of how higher education is financed has recommended allowing universities to set their own tuition rates, without a government-mandated cap. How the government will act on those recommendations is still unclear, and Mr. Usher's report examined three possible scenarios and their potential impacts on affordability and accessibility. Although government ministers have indicated that they are unlikely to push to remove the tuition cap, some possibilities being discussed would make British universities the most expensive in the world, he noted, and would represented an unprecedented jump in costs within a single system in such a short time frame.
Because of variations in data, international comparisons can be difficult, but, "by putting international statistics on affordability and access in a consistent, comparative framework and shedding harsh light on national claims of policy success," the report says that it marks "an attempt to force policy makers, stakeholders, and academics around the world to confront these questions in a more systematic fashion."