Every year, I take the 68 teams in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament and fill out a bracket based on colleges with the lowest net price of attendance (defined as the total cost of attendance less all grant aid received). My 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013 brackets are preserved for posterity—and often aren’t terribly successful on the hardwood. My 2015 winner (Wichita State) won two games in the tournament, while prior winners New Orleans (2017), Fresno State (2016), Louisiana-Lafayette (2014), and North Carolina A&T (2013) emerged victorious for having the lowest net price but failed to win a single game. But at least West Virginia (a regional champion last year) won two games, so maybe there is some hope for this method.
I created a bracket using 2015-16 data (the most recent available through the U.S. Department of Education for the net price of attendance for all first-time, full-time students receiving grant aid I should note that these net price measures are far from perfect—the data are now three years old and colleges can manipulate these numbers through the living allowance portion of the cost of attendance. Nevertheless, they provide some insights regarding college affordability—and they may not be a bad way to pick that tossup 8/9 game that you’ll probably get wrong anyway.
The final four teams in the bracket are the following, with the full dataset available here:
East: Cal State-Fullerton ($8,170)
West: UNC-Chapel Hill ($10,077)
South: Wright State ($14,464)
Midwest: New Mexico State ($10,213)
Kudos to Cal State-Fullerton for having the lowest net price for all students ($8,170), with an additional shout-out to UNC-Chapel Hill for having the lowest net price among teams that are likely to make it to the final weekend of basketball ($10,077). (Also, kudos to the North Carolina system for having two universities in the last eight.)
Additionally, although I didn’t do a bracket for students in the lowest family income category (below $30,000) this year, the University of Michigan has the lowest net price in that category (at $2,660). Although Michigan doesn’t serve that many low-income students, a new program (designed in part by all-star Michigan economist Susan Dynarski) guarantees four years of free tuition for in-state students with family incomes below $65,000. That’s a good step for a wealthy public university to take.