Games Colleges Play — Disclosing Room, Board, and Other Costs

Don’t rely too much on the Cost of Attendance (COA) figures disclosed on your student’s financial aid offers from colleges to which she’s been admitted. Sad to say, they’re often inaccurate.

Games Colleges Play: Tuition and Fee Disclosures focuses on one critical COA category, IMG_1280 but federal rules also require postsecondary institutions to communicate other sets of costs:

  • Room and board;
  • Books and supplies;
  • Transportation; and
  • Miscellaneous.

Colleges often determine these costs by sampling local prices or surveying current-students. These methods typically cause them to publish average costs, which means some students spend more while others spend less in each category. Hopefully, your student can be often among those who spend less.

Unfortunately, colleges may also deliberately downsize amounts they disclose so their published COAs appear to be lower than those of their competitors. And sometimes institutional administrators simply believe students shouldn’t be allowed to spend what their own research shows students are spending in certain categories.

Here are some commonly played games in COA categories other than tuition and fees:

Room and Board: This is usually based on what the school’s housing and food service department charges to live on-campus with a roommate for up to nine months. Such departments object to giving “extra” financial aid to help students reside off-campus, so colleges often apply their on-campus amounts to students who dine and rent off-campus — largely under leases landlords require to be for 12 months.

Books and Supplies: This category normally divulges average book and supply expenses for all students. But some majors have extraordinary high book and supply costs, so this amount could be way too low.

Transportation: This figure commonly reflects what in-state students spend to travel between campus and home a few times each academic year. It seldom covers long-distance travel expenses for out-of-state students or costs for students who must drive to and from off-campus jobs.

Miscellaneous: This covers personal purchases — clothing, entertainment, snacks, etc. But institutions are particularly likely to “lowball” the costs disclosed in this category.

So determine whether you can actually afford a college even with the financial aid it’s offering. Do your own research about its COA — speak with current students and their parents, examine on-campus dorm prices, sample off-campus rents, independently calculate your student’s transportation expenses, etc. Doing so can avert financial disaster for you and your student!

College Affordability Solutions helps parents and students decipher financial aid offers. Call (512) 366-5354 or email if you need a no-cost consultation for this purpose.

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