Why I’m Skeptical of Cost of Attendance Figures

In the midst of a fairly busy week for higher education (hello, Biden’s student loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment plans!), the National Center for Education Statistics began adding a new year of data into the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. I have long been interested in cost of attendance figures, as colleges often face intense pressure to keep these numbers low. A higher cost of attendance means a higher net price, which makes colleges look bad even if this number is driven by student living allowances that colleges do not receive. For my scholarly work on this, see this Journal of Higher Education article—and I also recommend this new Urban Institute piece on the topic.

After finishing up a bunch of interviews on student loan debt, I finally had a chance to dig into cost of attendance data from IPEDS for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic year. I focused on the reported cost of attendance for students living off-campus at 1,568 public and 1,303 private nonprofit institutions (academic year reporters) with data in both years. This time period is notable for two things: more modest increases in tuition and sharply higher living costs due to the pandemic and resulting changes to college attendance and society at large.

And the data bear this out on listed tuition prices. The average increase in tuition was just 1.67%, with similar increases across public and private nonprofit colleges. 116 colleges had lower listed tuition prices in fall 2021 than in fall 2020, while about two-thirds for public and one-third of private nonprofit colleges did not increase tuition for fall 2021. This resulted in a tuition increase well below the rate of inflation, which is generally good news for students but bad news for colleges.

The cost of attendance numbers, as shown below, look a little different. Nearly three times as many institutions (322) reported a lower cost of attendance than reported lower tuition, which is surprising given rising living costs. More colleges also reported increasing the cost of attendance relative to increasing tuition, with fewer colleges reporting no changes.

Changes in tuition and cost of attendance, fall 2020 to fall 2021.

 Public (n=1,568)Private (n=1,303)
Tuition  
  Decrease6452
  No change955439
  Increase549812
Cost of attendance  
  Decrease188134
  No change296172
  Increase1,084997

Some of the reductions in cost of attendance are sizable without a corresponding cut in tuition. For example, California State University-Monterey Bay reduced its listed cost of attendance from $31,312 to $26,430 while tuition increased from $7,143 to $7,218. [As Rich Hershman pointed out on Twitter, this is potentially due to California updating its cost of attendance survey instead of increasing it by inflation every year.]

Texas Wesleyan University increased tuition from $33,408 to $34,412, while the cost of attendance fell from $52,536 to $49,340. These decreases could be due to a more accurate estimate of living expenses, moving to open educational resources instead of textbooks, or reducing student fees. But the magnitude of these decreases during an inflationary period leads me to continue questioning the accuracy of cost of attendance values or the associated net prices.

As a quick note, this week marks the ten-year anniversary of my blog. Thanks for joining me through 368 posts! I don’t have the time to do as many posts as I used to, but it is sure nice to have an outlet for some occasional thoughts and data pieces.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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