The Department of Education recently released a tool allowing users to compare tuition costs at American colleges. The tool revealed some interesting data, particularly information indicating that Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, is at $51,300 the most expensive college in the United States of America.

Well Bates protests that this isn’t fair. According to a piece by Josie Huang at the Maine Public Broadcast Network:

News outlets around the country have dubbed Bates College in Lewiston the most expensive private, non-profit school in America. That’s after the federal government last week unveiled a public website pricing a Bates education at $51,300 for the 2009-2010 school year. The college has been doing damage control in the days since, pointing out that its ranking has to do with the fact that it includes room and board in its price tag.

Officials at both Colby and Bates say they are considering submitting tuition costs for the next federal survey, rather than presenting a comprehensive fee.

But it actually does cost $51,300 a year to go to Bates. Students and their families still have to pay room and board; those services aren’t voluntary.

What this really highlights, however, is the problem with the formula. Some colleges submitted total fees, some submitted merely tuition. It’s entirely appropriate to include room and board in the calculation. But the Department should probably calculate that information for every school to allow for valid comparison.

In truth, Bates actually is one of the most expensive colleges in America. This is true whether one compares colleges based on comprehensive cost (Bates says the total is really $55,300) or merely tuition. If every school had to submit total cost Bates wouldn’t necessarily be on the top of the list, but it would surely be pretty close.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer