Real Cost of College Is Higher Than Students Think, Report Reveals

Posted By Eliana Osborn on April 11, 2016 at 10:28 am
Real Cost of College Is Higher Than Students Think, Report Reveals

Spending four years studying full-time means significant opportunity costs for today’s college students, before even taking tuition and living expenses into consideration. Public or private, vocational school or university, it can be hard to figure out just what higher education is going to cost until you are in the middle of it.

The Real Cost of College, a report from The Century Foundation, highlights the unexpected charges that make up life for college students—and how this real cost affects learning in major ways. Findings can be categorized in three primary areas:

Financial aid decreases during college

Because of recruitment efforts, more financial aid is generally offered to freshmen. Costs for lab fees, books, and other expenses only rise over the course of a college career, though. This discrepancy leaves students barely getting by when they first start school and then falling behind before they have a chance to graduate.

Additionally, reapplying for FAFSA each year can be challenging without permanent living arrangements. Family earnings data, even your address, may be unknown in college; more than 15% of Pell award students in good standing don’t reapply for the next year, according to the report.

All-in costs are underestimated by colleges

Schools are legally required to list certain costs so that students can more easily compare prices at different institutions. This sticker or list price must include tuition and fees, books, supplies, transportation, and living costs. No school wants their total cost to look high compared to similar campuses. That creates an incentive for underestimating certain numbers, especially those for housing or living expenses, where there can be a range.

Whatever schools say is the cost of attendance, financial aid is only available up to that level. For students on the ground, that means a shortfall between what they need and what they can get.

In one example, students living on campus had additional costs like purchasing official bedding or housing repair fees. These expenses may seem minimal, but when you have no extra funds, these little charges appear insurmountable.

Unexpected expenses have educational consequences

Schools are recognizing how graduation rates are tied up with financial issues. On a less dramatic scale, students unable to make ends meet have to take on more work hours—often leading to significant stress and lower grades. Internship opportunities, a key to employment after graduation, may be based on how much a position pays instead of whether it is a good experience.

Hidden fees aren’t necessarily an intentional move on the part of colleges. Though, by not including all possibilities in official estimates, or at least good faith ranges, the real cost of attendance isn’t made clear to potential students. This makes it difficult to make informed, smart financial decisions when it comes to choosing a college or pursuing higher education.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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