The total cost of attending a particular college, as estimated by the institution, sets the upper limit on how much a family can take out in student loans, leading some students to borrow more than they need and some to borrow less and run out of money.
Location. Location. Location. That adage about real estate pricing takes on new meaning — and some bewildering logic — in the hands of college administrators.
In setting allowances for off-campus living, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn decided that about $18,500 should cover it. Two blocks away, St. Joseph’s College determined that $10,000 would suffice.
SUNY College at Old Westbury and Long Island University’s Post campus in Brookville, N.Y., may be in similarly affluent locales just 5 miles apart, but look at the chasm between their budgets for students living off-campus: The State University of New York computed that its students needed $11,300 last year, while LIU’s needed $27,500.
This is not just a New York state of mind. Estimating expenses is a murky business across the country, made even more so when “miscellaneous expenses” — for anything from health insurance to laundry — are added to the equation.
In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and neighboring Drexel University calculated off-campus costs that vary by $3,000. And Johnson & Wales gives students at its campuses in North Miami, Denver, Providence, Rhode Island, and Charlotte, North Carolina, the exact same allowance: $8,609, though these cities have disparate living costs.
Nearly 60 percent of colleges significantly underestimate or overestimate off-campus living costs, according to continuing research by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab (Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education), which studies barriers to college access and completion.
Inaccurate statistics matter.
Consumer-friendly shopping tools like the government’s College Scorecard and net price calculators will churn out misleading information, making it difficult for applicants to compare colleges. While a low projection can be a boon for colleges looking to attract more applicants by seeming more affordable, it can spell disaster for students who enroll and then discover that their living costs are higher than they can afford.
Some run out of cash and are forced to drop out, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
Perhaps most critical, the total cost of attending a particular college or university, as estimated by the institution, sets the upper limit on how much a family can take out in both federal and private student loans, leading some students to borrow more than they need and some to borrow less and run out of money.
“This is how you get debt and no degree,” Goldrick-Rab said. “It’s not tuition that’s driving people out of school.”
Room, board and personal expenses make up about half of college costs. Most students live off-campus — 87 percent — but even prospective students who plan to live in dorms can be affected by shaky statistics. That’s because some college planning websites, including College Scorecard, average schools’ on- and off-campus living expenses to reach their net price — the cost of attending less the average amount of grants and scholarships awarded.
Miscalculations can be traced to the thicket of regulations that govern college pricing. The Department of Education requires colleges to report the cost of attendance. It tells them what kinds of costs to include — tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses — but gives lots of wiggle room in how they come up with the numbers. With no federal rules and few recommendations to guide them, colleges use a hodgepodge of methods to predict costs.
That might explain why room and board estimates for colleges within the same county can vary so much — on average, by $6,448, according to research by the New America foundation published in May.
Some estimates are so low that students could not live on them even with a crowd of roommates, according to the real estate website Trulia, which came out with its own study in September. For example, the University of California, Santa Barbara, posted its 2015-16 housing budget as $6,345, but Trulia calculated that students would need to spend $13,478 each to share a two-bedroom apartment within the university’s ZIP code. Even if five students shared a four-bedroom apartment, they would each have to pay $8,460. (Of course, students often move outside of pricey ZIP codes, trading higher rents for longer commutes from less desirable areas.)
Some colleges keep estimates low, they say, to prevent their students from going into too much debt. If students get more than they need, it’s easy to forget it’s a loan and spend it.
“Goucher College discourages unnecessary borrowing,” said Kathy Michel, a spokeswoman, pointing out that 2014 graduates with student loans left Goucher with lower average debt — $25,580 — than graduates of most area colleges.
Goucher, a small liberal arts school in the Baltimore suburb of Towson, estimated $6,132 for off-campus room, board and miscellaneous expenses in 2013-14, the lowest of 16 colleges in the Baltimore area and less than half of what HOPE, using government food and housing forecasts, projected was the appropriate amount for a student living in a two-bedroom apartment with one roommate.
Just as colleges may be tempted to underestimate budgets, there are incentives to overestimate as well. One is to ensure that students don’t run out of rent money. High cost-of-attendance numbers mean students qualify for more low-cost federal loans, said Kim Dancy, a policy expert at New America. Universities may also want to make their dormitories look like the more affordable option. That could persuade students to live on campus, which generates more revenue for the college and also, studies show, leads to higher student engagement.
Braden J. Hosch, who leads institutional research at Stony Brook University and is a HOPE study co-author, is of the opinion that students at public four-year institutions are borrowing too much money. The HOPE researchers, who created standard living costs for every county in the United States, found that nearly half of four-year public colleges overestimated by at least $1,500. About 10 percent significantly underestimated living costs.
Low projections were more of a problem at private nonprofit colleges. More than 30 percent significantly underestimated room, board and personal expenses; about 33 percent significantly overestimated them.
Meanwhile, Robert Kelchen, an education professor at Seton Hall University and study co-author, detected an unusual pattern. Net prices dropped significantly at about 8 percent of colleges in recent years, even though their tuition had risen. These colleges had cut their off-campus estimates so much that their cost of attendance fell. At 131 colleges whose net prices dropped by at least $2,000 in one year, average living allowances had declined by $610 as tuition rose by $310.
There may be legitimate reasons for such a trend, like drops in local rents, Kelchen said. But he also questioned whether some colleges were simply trying to look more affordable while increasing their revenues. “The numbers can be gamed, and likely are by a small percentage of colleges,” he said.
Whittier College exhibits this pattern. It lowered its off-campus living costs by 33 percent from 2012-13 to 2015-16, while increasing its tuition by 12 percent. Of 57 colleges and universities in Los Angeles County, Whittier had the lowest allowance for off-campus living, the HOPE analysis found. Kieron Miller, the college’s vice president of enrollment, defended the downgrade this way: “Given that our students often have roommates, this allotment has been enough to rent in the surrounding community.”
Students who discover they don’t have enough money to cover living expenses can petition their financial aid administrators to raise their cost-of-attendance budget, which would allow them to borrow more money.
Amanda Martin-Lawrence, a Brooklynite who will start at Pitzer College this fall, already is worried about how to cover travel costs to California. The school allotted her only $500 for transportation for the entire academic year. Robin Thompson, director of financial aid at Pitzer, said that this was exactly the kind of problem that could be appealed, noting that travel costs are based on the average need of its students, most of whom live in California.
The Department of Education, which cannot by law regulate most components of the financial aid analysis or any part of the cost of attendance, makes only vague suggestions about how to set such budgets. Its latest student-aid handbook recommends that schools survey students, review local housing costs or use “reasonable methods you may devise.”
The HOPE researchers argue that the education department should convene a working group to develop a consistent method to calculate living costs.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators created a 16-page monograph with specific guidelines, emphasizing the need to devise budgets for a modest living standard.
Cost of attendance can be a “hot political issue,” the monograph warns. “The pressure to be more affordable can lead to scrutiny of the cost of attendance by senior administrators.”
It cautions administrators: “If you feel you must give in to pressure” to alter estimates, “do not hesitate to request a memo telling you to do so.”
The association’s 2014 survey showed that 90 percent of 359 respondents had confidence in their calculations. About 35 percent of officers consulted local housing providers as part of their research, and about 25 percent asked students about their living expenses.
Relying solely on student surveys, which 10 percent reported doing, can skew results in the direction of campus demographics, Kelchen observed. A college may be filled with big spenders or penny pinchers. Marquette University, for instance, has a relatively affluent student body. It surveyed 7,300 students to come up with an off-campus budget of $16,116 in 2013-14, the highest among four-year nonprofit colleges in Milwaukee County and about $5,000 higher than government projections.
Some colleges find they don’t have the time or money to do an extensive analysis. SUNY Old Westbury’s low estimate had not been updated for five years because of a management turnover, said Pat Louis Lettini, associate vice president for business affairs. It plans to raise its estimate from $11,300 for room, board and miscellaneous expenses to more than $17,000 next year.
Many colleges and universities have dispensed with formulas and just give the same allowances to students who live on- or off-campus. Tufts University said it set prices the same because student surveys showed that expenses were so similar. Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, began giving the same allowances in 2012 to make the system more fair.
“We wanted to extend the same financial eligibility to off-campus students as on-campus students,” said Kristin Vogel, associate vice president for traditional enrollment management. “It’s creating equity for our students.”