The site is easy enough to use. Pick a school type, pick a cost category, and, voila: a list of the most or least expensive schools in the country.
The U.S. Education Department database released late last month, a piece federal lawmakers ordered up, is intended to give families a more transparent look at rising college costs. But a few schools, notably Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and Florida State University in Tallahassee, balked at their inclusion.
With a menagerie of so many different kinds of schools, is it fair to compare them solely by price?
Education Department spokeswoman Sara Gast said that was never the intention. Rather, "it's one of many tools," students can use as they consider college costs, part of an effort to quell excessive student loans.
"On the front end, we want students to have an idea of what they're getting into," Gast said. "As far as a sort of direct influence on college decisions, we want this to be one of many things considered."
When students go to the site, they can choose a school category based on whether it's four years, two years, or less, whether it's for-profit or not-for-profit, and whether it's public or private. They then must narrow down the search with options for highest or lowest tuition and highest or lowest net prices. Net prices are calculated by adding up tuition and fees and subtracting the average grant and scholarship aid.
Eckerd was upset after being posted among the most expensive not-for-profit private colleges. Donald Eastman, president of the St. Petersburg school, said the net price did not include students' scholarships from private organizations or earnings from part-time employment, among other sources.
The day the database went live last month, Eckerd released a seven-item list disputing the national cost rankings, in which it was tallied at $31,359. The site lists the national average for that type of institution as $19,000.
Eastman said because of other sources of aid, that average cost should be closer to $23,000 or $24,000.
Plus, Eastman wondered, how are students looking at the database expected to know about Eckerd's stellar graduation rate, its small, personal environment or that its tuition includes room and board?
"I don't think, frankly, people are going to look at a (public) university on the list and see it costs $10,000 and look at our school and see it costs $30,000 and not make a comparison," Eastman said. "And it's not apples to apples."
Florida State University was uncomfortable that FSU was the only public university in Florida included on a list for fastest rising costs, since all the state's 11 public universities have increased tuition prices by the same rate — 15 percent — the last few years.
The online list shows that FSU's tuition and costs, minus financial aid, went up by 36 percent from 2008 to 2010. Of the 32 schools listed with the fastest rising costs, FSU is second to last.
It's not that other schools' costs didn't increase, it's just that FSU's costs went up a smidge more. Unlike tuition, fee increases across the universities varied. At the request of students, FSU recently tacked on $22 for a new campus health center.
FSU officials were quick to point out that even with the increase, all Florida's public universities' costs remain among the lowest in the nation — still 15 percent below the national average.
Gast acknowledged the colleges' concerns, and said that the Education Department doesn't want students to consider only price when evaluating institutions. That's why the department took its legislative mandate a step further and linked each listed school to a more detailed description on the department's College Navigator site.
Pat Callan, president of the independent National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, agreed that the database, albeit limited, still offers a good service.
"I do not believe the message that many families get out of this is, 'Pick the cheapest price,' " Callan said. "If that's all they wanted to do, they wouldn't need to consult this list. … This just puts some burden on colleges to justify the added value."
Now more than ever, students are taking costs into account when exploring colleges, he said. Still, "Americans price shop all the time, but they don't always go out and buy the cheapest car of the cheapest food.
"This is just one more piece of information," Callan said. "I see it as a constructive, but not a radical change."
Reach Kim Wilmath at email@example.com or 813-226-3337.