For the third iteration of our report on What College Costs for Low-Income Californians, we analyzed what students have to pay out of pocket after grants and scholarships for all three federally defined living arrangements: on campus, off-campus with family, and off-campus independently. We examined these net prices at the nine undergraduate-serving University of California (UC) campuses and nearby California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) campuses across California. This is the first time our analysis considered living arrangements beyond off-campus independently – which is how the majority of California college students reside – and doing so required overcoming some data limitations. In this blog post, we discuss how we accounted for data gaps and ways that data transparency and accessibility can be improved.
Net Price Calculators (NPCs) are federally mandated consumer tools designed to provide information to students and families about college costs and financial aid before they apply to college. Because costs differ for students who live on campus, off-campus with family, and off-campus independently, NPCs take students’ living situation into account. Many colleges use a federally developed NPC template that sources data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Student Financial Aid (SFA) survey. However, as we have written about previously, federal cost data for students living at home – a group that includes about two-in-five undergraduates in California’s public colleges – are significantly understated. That’s because they do not collect room and board cost data for students living off-campus with family like they do for the other two living arrangements, despite the fact that students who live at home typically do incur costs for food and housing, especially those from low-income families. According to UC’s most recent Undergraduate Cost of Attendance Survey (Table 9), among students who lived with parents with annual incomes less than $54,000, nearly three-quarters (72%) purchased groceries and nearly half (46%) paid rent.
In our most recent analysis, the NPCs of 17 of the colleges we investigated – eight of the nine CSUs and all nine of the CCCs – did not include room and board costs for students living at home. However, using colleges’ published student budgets, we discovered that all 17 of the colleges understood students living at home do incur food and housing costs – costs that were not reflected in the colleges’ NPCs. To adjust for this data gap in our analysis, we added the room and board costs published in these student budgets to the institution’s NPC output. This added, on average, more than $6,000 to these students’ total college costs.
Adding room and board estimates to NPC outputs was the easy part; the more challenging component was finding the room and board estimates to begin with. For example, not all colleges had a page displaying student budgets. Some schools displayed the information in places that were not intuitive, such as in consumer information reports and financial aid handbooks. In a few cases, the information was only found deeply embedded in reports that were not readily captured via search engines.
NPCs are designed to help students find affordable college options, but they can create confusion rather than clear it up if they are based on incomplete data. We urge the federal Department of Education to expand the IPEDS SFA survey data collection nationally so that it includes the room and board costs for students living at home – costs that colleges already have estimated and are using in their own financial aid packaging. Additionally, institutions should ensure that their student budget estimates accurately represent all costs that students will incur and are easily accessible on their websites. Doing so will provide all students, and under-resourced students in particular – many of whom are underrepresented in higher education and also the most burdened by student loan debt – with complete information when making decisions about whether, where, and how to attend college.
This is the second post in a blog series on our updated analysis, What College Costs for Low-Income Californians: 2020.
 University of California, Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, Student Financial Support. February 2017. Findings from the Undergraduate Cost of Attendance Survey 2015-16. Table 9. https://regents.universityofcalifornia.edu/regmeet/mar17/a1attach.pdf