The cost of going to college is more than just tuition: it includes textbooks, transportation, housing, food, and other personal expenses. Long defined by federal law, these combined costs are called the “cost of attendance” (COA). Colleges are required to give the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) estimated COAs for their students every year. These estimates play an important role in determining students’ financial aid eligibility, and in helping students and families understand the full cost they’re likely to face at a particular school. But some estimates greatly understate those costs because of the way the Department collects them.
Bear with us while we explain the problem and what we learned about its implications.
How Costs are Estimated and Reported
Because students’ costs can vary widely depending on their living situation, colleges often develop three distinct COA estimates: for living on campus, at home (with family), and off campus (without family). Colleges have considerable discretion over how they estimate each type of cost that comprises the COA, but federal law specifies which types to include: some are for all students, such as textbooks and room and board (housing and food), while others, such as childcare or disability services, are applied only to students who need them.
Schools report their COA estimates by type of cost and by living status through the Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Student Financial Aid (SFA) survey. These figures are used in consumer-facing websites, as well as to calculate the “net price” estimates displayed on tools like the College Scorecard and on many colleges’ Net Price Calculators. (Net price is COA minus grants and scholarships: it’s what students need to cover through savings, earnings, and/or loans.)
These tools provide students and families with more meaningful cost estimates than typical sticker price listings, but their accuracy is undermined by the fact that they rely on incomplete COA data. This is because the IPEDS SFA survey does not let schools report estimated room and board expenses for students living at home as they do for students living on campus or off campus without family. Why not? It may be that those who designed the IPEDS COA survey questions presumed that schools do not account for any room and board costs in their COA budgets for students living at home, or even that these students don’t incur living costs in the first place. However, for many students, living at home isn’t free; a 2015 survey of low- and moderate-income Wisconsin students found that three in four students living at home purchased food and 39 percent paid rent. Unsurprisingly, then, we have seen that many colleges do recognize that students living at home incur expenses for room and board, and factor them into their COA estimates as federal law allows (and used to require). Wherever this is the case, federal data on college costs and net prices are understated.
To better understand the scope of the problem and its implications, we selected a random sample of 50 colleges (25 public four-year and 25 public two-year schools) and collected COA data from an alternate source: student aid budgets posted on college web sites or available from financial aid offices. We limited our analysis to schools that reported at least 10 percent of students living at home. For each of these schools we examined whether their COA estimate for students living at home included a room and board allowance, and, if so, how much that allowance was. Our findings confirmed colleges’ widespread acknowledgement that students living at home face significant room and board expenses.
Of the 41 colleges for which we were able to collect alternative COA data to compare with IPEDS, we found:
- All 41 colleges assume some room and board cost for students living off-campus with family, contrary to assumptions that schools provide no such allowance.
- Room and board allowances for students living at home range from $1,350 to nearly $8,000 per year. Two-thirds of the colleges (27 out of 41) listed allowances of $3,000 or more.
- Two of the 41 colleges appear to have reported room and board allowances for students living at home to IPEDS by adding them into the “other expenses” category. While doing so results in more comprehensive federal calculations of costs and net price, this practice runs counter to IPEDS instructions, which state that room and board costs are not to be reported for these students.
- Thirty-nine of the 41 schools provide room and board allowances that are partially or completely excluded from IPEDS reporting.
Las Positas College Net Price Calculator*
*Results for a student living at home with less than 30,000 in family income
Implications for Cost and Net Price Estimates
These exclusions have significant impacts on colleges’ cost and net price estimates. For example, Las Positas College – a community college in California – estimates that students living at home have room and board costs of $4,518 in 2013-14. Yet the institution’s net price calculator (NPC) lists an estimated room and board budget of $0, because the school used a federal NPC template that drew on incomplete IPEDS COA data for 2013-14. Had the NPC properly factored in room and board costs, the net price listed for a low-income student living at home would have been $7,407, more than two-and-a-half times the listed net price of $2,889.
How much of an impact it has on college-level figures, or aggregate figures at the state- or national-level, depends on the share of a college’s student body that lives at home. At 24 of the 41 colleges we analyzed, more than half of the students used in the calculation of federal net price by income lived off-campus with family. This means that:
- Federally collected and widely used COA figures for these colleges are often understated by thousands of dollars, as they don’t reflect the comprehensive COA budgets colleges develop.
- The net price calculations displayed in consumer tools like the College Scorecard can be substantially understated.
- Personalized estimates provided by colleges’ own NPCs might be understated if they use the federal NPC template.
The exclusion of these room and board costs in the federal data affect net prices for community colleges more than other types of schools, because community colleges have the greatest share of students captured in the data living at home. However, the problem isn’t limited to public, two-year schools. There are more than 1,000 colleges in other sectors across the country where at least half of students counted in the federal net price data live at home.
The Solution: Collect Room and Board Estimates for All Students
Consumer tools that rely on federal data are designed to provide students and families reliable and comparable college cost estimates – something they cannot do given the way COA data are currently collected in IPEDS. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Expand the IPEDS SFA survey to include room and board estimates for students living at home.
 The standard cost categories are tuition & fees, room & board, books & supplies, and other expenses (transportation & miscellaneous personal expenses).
 Colleges report COA estimates for first-time, full-time, full-year students. Estimates include standard cost categories that apply to all students, but not specialized cost categories.
 Enrollment by living status is reported for first-time, full-time Title IV aid recipients.
 At the remaining nine colleges, we could not find COA budgets listed on their websites and did not receive responses to our queries about COA. Our analysis incorporated the latest available cost of attendance budgets through the 2015-16 academic year, and cost of attendance data reported to IPEDS for 2013-14, the latest available survey year for IPEDS SFA net price by income cohorts.
 2015-16 IPEDS survey materials make clear that for students living off-campus (with family), room and board costs are not reported, only other expenses.