Blog Post | January 11, 2021

Diving Deeper into College Affordability Gaps in California: The Real Total Costs of Community College Students

Author: Ana Fung

This past July, we released our third analysis of how much college costs for low-income Californians after accounting for grants and scholarships. Our methodological approach to this analysis is unique: Rather than using readily available federal data to estimate what colleges will actually cost low-income students out of pocket, we use colleges’ net price calculators (NPCs) – and supplement with colleges’ student budgets when NPC data are incomplete. Our analysis shows that attending a California Community College (CCC) is often much more costly than federal net price data suggest, and this blog post explores the methodological details that explain those differences.

The federal net price data in question come from a collection of federal surveys, known as The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Looking at a cohort of first-time, full-time (FTFT) students, IPEDS’ Student Financial Aid (SFA) survey collects college costs for students across three different living arrangements (given that each comes with different costs) as well as the average grant aid received by that cohort of students. The resulting net price data are calculated by averaging total college costs across students in the cohort and subtracting average grant aid from it.

While these data are critically important in many respects, there are two significant limitations to understand, particularly when it comes to interpreting CCC student net prices:

  1.  As we first chronicled in 2016, the federal cost data for students who live off-campus with family are incomplete. Specifically, they do not include room and board expenses despite the reality that low-income students often help their families pay for living costs.1 At the same time, colleges generally do include them in their own students’ cost of attendance estimates and financial aid offers (notably, a new federal legislation will require colleges to provide room and board estimates for these students going forward). As a result, the federal IPEDS data tend to significantly undercount the total college costs for colleges where students frequently live with family. Importantly, this is also true for NPCs that derive their outputs using only those incomplete federal data. In our analysis, when NPCs excluded room and board costs for students living with family, we corrected for this limitation by locating colleges’ budgets and adding the missing data element to the outputs from the colleges’ NPCs. Across the colleges in our analysis, room and board costs for students living with family averaged about $6,000 – costs that are missing from any figures derived using exclusively federal IPEDS data.2
  2.  This problem is compounded by the fact that the cohort of FTFT students captured in the federal IPEDS data are more likely than CCC students as a whole to live off-campus with family. The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally representative federal survey that is considered one of the main sources for information on college costs and financial aid, shows that a minority (46%) of Californians who attended a public two-year institution in 2016 lived off-campus with family. However, data from the SFA survey of the same year, which is limited to only FTFT students, show that a majority (54%) of these CCC students do.3 By overrepresenting the share of students who live at home with family — whose costs are erroneously understated — IPEDS’ average net price data understate the overall costs for CCC students as a whole to an outsized degree.

To illustrate this at the college level: Using San Diego Miramar College’s NPC, we see that low-income students’ net price is estimated at $700 for those living with parents.4 However, if we add in the missing $6,800 that Miramar estimates these students to pay for room and board, then the net price jumps up to $7,500. In fact, the $6,800 missing from Miramar’s cost of attendance estimates in its NPC represents nearly half of these students’ total college costs.5

As the state debates how and whether to reform and strengthen state financial aid, it is critical that stakeholders start with an understanding of the affordability challenges students are facing, and the data used to help define what the challenges are. In the meantime, it is long past due for the federal government to give prospective students a more accurate sense of what they may have to pay out of pocket, which can affect their college-going decisions. The new federal legislation requiring colleges to provide room and board allowances to students living with family underscores the urgency of making improvements to federal data collection, so that these costs are captured in federal data as with students in different living situations. Simply requiring colleges to report room and board estimates for students living with family during IPEDS data collection – data that institutions already include in the student budgets they post online – will help low-income students and their families understand real college costs and make well-informed decisions about where to enroll, as well as ensure policymakers’ decisions are informed by comprehensive data.

[1] For example, see: University of California, Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, Student Financial Support, Findings from the Undergraduate Cost of Attendance Survey 2015-16, February 2017,, Table 9.

[2] TICAS, “Diving Deeper into College Affordability Gaps in California: Assessing Net Price Data and How They Can Be Improved for Students Living at Home,” August 25, 2020,

[3] Calculations by TICAS using 2015-16 data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) and IPEDS’ SFA survey.

[4] Figures are rounded to the nearest hundred; San Diego Miramar College’s net price calculator was accessed in July 2020.

[5] IPEDS’ 2018-19 estimate of San Diego Miramar College’s total cost of attendance for a student paying in-state tuition and living off-campus with family is $7,400, rounded to the nearest hundred. The following calculation shows that the missing $6,800 makes up nearly half of the total cost of attendance: $6,800 / ($7,400 + $6,800).