Our senior researcher recently got a request to look into the prevalence of schools with a total cost of attendance listed at $40,000 per year or above. The jump over the last 10 years of federal data is nothing short of shocking.

Using the Department of Education’s IPEDS data system, we compared 4-year public, private non-profit, and private for-profit institutions on two variables: total cost of attendance in 2002-2003 and total cost of attendance 2012-2013 (the most recent dataset available). Although the data set lists 3,171 schools, there are schools with unreported data. Specifically, in 2002-2003, there were 2,119 schools reporting this data and, in 2012-2013, there were 1,749 schools reporting this data.

Looking at 2002-2003, only three schools had a total cost of attendance sticker price in excess of $40,000. That’s .14% of all 4-year schools reporting that data that year! The three schools making that tiny percentage were three private non-profit schools: Landmark College ($42,700), Saint Louis University-Main Campus ($41,076), and Sarah Lawrence College ($40,770).

However, looking at the 2012-2013 total cost of attendance, a whopping 500+ schools now have a total cost of attendance sticker price above $40,000. 575 private non-profit, private for-profit and out-of-state public schools list their total cost of attendance at $40,000+. While this number drops down to 513 if we’re looking at in-state schools, that still represents roughly 30% of 4-year schools reporting their total cost of attendance data for 2012-2013.

Certainly sticker price of schools has increased significantly over the past decade. In the Trends of College Pricing 2013, the College Board noted that 2003-2004 tuition, fees, room and board at private non-profit 4-years schools were $33,098 in 2013 dollars, but that the same cost $40,917 for academic year 2013-2014. And, while total federal aid made a major jump between 2002 and 2012, it’s important to note that sticker price affects familial education decisions. In fact, as reported in 2013 by Longmire and Company and AMI, roughly “4 in 10 students and parents reject colleges solely on the basis of sticker price.”

This, of course, is problematic because of the prevalence and magniture of tuition discounting in higher education. It could be that families are prematurely rejecting a preferred school on a misconception about price. The key takeaway should be this: while sticker price is helpful for tracking trends in higher education, personalized net price is the one that matters to family budgets. And, even though sticker prices continue to increase, it may be that a family’s cost for sending a student to an expensive school may be relatively inexpensive when all discounts and student aid is accounted for.