College & Career

Living expenses surprise new students, families
(Stock art)

(Stock art)

By Riyah Basha
Hinsdale Central
and Sierra Lai
Walter Payton

The cost of higher education has skyrocketed over the last 30 years, and now experts are warning teens about another hidden cost. While most statistics focus on rising tuition fees, new research is taking a closer look at living expenses.

According to a study from Wisconsin HOPE Lab, one-third of colleges are providing families and prospective students with cost of attendance estimates that are at least $3,000 under budget.

“There are so many things that you have to pay for that you can’t account for when you’re budgeting for college in high school,” said Marquette University sophomore Victoria Lei. “From books to even getting coffee at Starbucks, it really adds up.”

When the advertised bottom line isn’t realistic, students and their families struggle to keep up.

“In the last few years, the total cost of attending college has increased at 2 percent to 3 percent above the rate of inflation, which continues a long-term trend of costs rising well above any growth in family income,” said Dr. Robert Kelchen, one of the study’s co-authors and assistant professor of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University.

Kelchen and his colleagues cited several factors when analyzing rising costs. From a greater demand for higher education to the cost increase of basic necessities, degree chasers simply need to spend more. Students may not even realize some of the hidden costs until they arrive on campus and figure out the lay of the land.

Babson College sophomore Angela Leung said she experienced this firsthand when she realized her commute was adding up.

“(Living in) the suburbs of Boston equals thousands of dollars spent on Ubers to get into the city, where I … spend a lot of time,” she explained.

While these costs may not be a surprise to some, researchers found that colleges don’t always advertise and communicate these price hikes to the public.

“The institutions that are doing this have adopted a method of calculating that doesn’t cover or account for most living expenses,” said Dr. Braden Hosch, co-author of the HOPE Lab study and assistant vice president for institutional research, planning and effectiveness at Stony Brook University. “A lot of them have come up with widely divergent amounts.”

The difference in numbers could create a facade that misleads both students and their families. Although the discrepancies aren’t always intentional, some argue that schools should be held accountable for misreporting their costs—whether their numbers are too low or high.

“Colleges may want to overestimate living expenses in order for students to be able to access sufficient federal financial aid in order to pay for college without having to work too much,” Kelchen said. “The typical incentive is to underestimate costs (which) has the benefit of making college look cheaper. But it also means that students can’t get the financial aid they need to pay for college.”

Still, these startling discoveries shouldn’t make teens shy away from higher education. From pursuing scholarships to applying for grants and aid, students can utilize a variety of tools to avoid big surprises.

“The best thing to do is to contact the colleges or universities you’re planning to go to and see what kind of information they can help you with,” Hosch said. “Look at other similar institutions nearby, especially if they’re in a cluster.”

Using neighboring schools as a reference point is an easy way to appraise whether or not a college’s reported living expenses are accurate. In Washington, D.C., researchers found that schools’ estimates varied by over $10,000.

“Apply to several colleges, apply for as much financial aid as possible and think about whether the dream school is worth taking on additional debt,” Kelchen said.

Being aware of such discrepancies is the first step. The college landscape is rapidly changing, and housing officers and counselors alike advise high school students to stay informed. Prospective students are bombarded with so many options that it can be scary. But asking questions and developing a better understanding of these calculations can help students become more aware and make smarter decisions.

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About The Mash

The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free every other Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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