Even college costs have ingredients
Understand the standard elements of college costs
Federal regulations dictate what is included an annual college cost of attendance. Colleges may adjust the specific components of a cost of attendance to reflect increased costs due to inflation, rising operational expenses, and other costs. The College Board has reported in Trends in College Pricing that in the last decade the largest component of cost of attendance - tuition and fees - has increased at an average rate of 3.1% per year beyond inflation.
Let’s review the items that make up the college’s cost of attendance as defined by the federal government.
Tuition and fees are those billable college costs that are charged attending classes. Typically, these are based on full-time enrollment. Normally, only standard fees required of all students are included like a student activity fee, document fees, et cetera. Also, some schools will add either the average of actual student loan fees as well.
On-campus room and board are usually estimates based on the average cost for all the different housing and standard meal plan. Sometimes, on-campus room and board can be based on the average cost of the most affordable option on campus like a triple in a dormitory and 14 meals a week plan. Whereas off-campus housing and board may have been created by a survey once upon a time and then increase or decrease the cost based on the local cost of living index.
Books and supplies are college cost of attendance items that may vary widely. Many schools use survey data or study from the university bookstore to determine the average cost of books for all programs. Since these may not be done annually, many schools will increase or decrease the cost based on the local cost of living index.
Travel expenses in the cost of attendance are typically limited and often do not reflect the actual expenses. For students living in other states, it may include a cost for one round trip ticket surveyed annually. For students living off campus, it may assume that the commuter student lives no more than 25 miles to campus and may be able to opt for a public transportation option vs. a car. Sometimes schools only review these costs every three to five years and only increase or decrease the cost based on the local cost of living index. Hence, your actual travel expenses may be quite different from these estimated college costs by the college.
Health expenses can be added to the cost of attendance. For many traditional aged students who are dependent of their parents, these may not be added because they assume that the family will maintain their existing medical insurance for the student while they are enrolled. For independent students, some colleges add the cost of the medical plan usually offered to students while enrolled.
Miscellaneous costs are a catch all to acknowledge that there are some “other” costs that will occur along the way. Henri may need to buy a uniform of their work-study job. Jana may want to buy tickets for the volleyball game. Benedict may want to go to the student art exhibit. Often, these costs have been left similar year to year like $500 or $1,000.
Based on special circumstances, some colleges may add college cost items like childcare costs, unusual medical expenses, and disability services.
Colleen MacDonald Krumwiede is a financial aid and paying for college expert with over a decade of financial aid experience at Stanford GSB, Caltech, and Pomona College and another decade at educational finance and technology companies servicing higher education. She guides go-to-market strategy and product development at Quatromoney to transform the way families afford college.