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Average Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story of College Costs

A lot of numbers get tossed around in the debate over college costs and affordability. But those figures can be misleading or give an incomplete picture of what is really going on.

For example, take the median tuition for four-year colleges, which was about $15,000 in the 2011-12 academic year, according to Andrew Gillen, a researcher at the nonpartisan Education Sector.

That sounds like a lot of money, of course. But Mr. Gillen points out in his latest blog post that there is a very wide range in tuition prices, from close to $0 at some public colleges to nearly $50,000 at the most expensive private nonprofit institutions.

And breaking out costs by sector, as Mr. Gillen does in his post, illuminates some not-so-often-mentioned trends. The median cost of a public four-year college is $6,500 per year, and the price range for those institutions is much narrower, over all, than that of either the for-profit or nonprofit private colleges.

“Even highly priced public four-year colleges charge less than the typical for-profit college or an ‘inexpensive’ nonprofit college,” Mr. Gillen writes.

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