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)
  No change955439
Cost of attendance  
  No change296172

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.

Highlighting Some Interesting Living Allowance Estimates

As a self-proclaimed higher education data nerd, I was thrilled to see the U.S. Department of Education release the first of the 2018-19 data via its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) website. Among the new components released today was fresh data on tuition, fees, and other components of the total cost of attendance. After taking a little bit of time to update my datasets (a tip to users: investing in using the full data files instead of the point-and-click interface is well worth it), I’m surfacing with a look at some of the more interesting living allowance estimates for off-campus students.

Some quick details on why this is important: colleges are responsible for setting the cost of attendance (COA) for students, which includes estimated expenses for room and board, books and supplies, and other miscellaneous expenses like transportation and personal care. Students can access financial aid up to the COA, and the net price of attendance (a key accountability measure) is derived by subtracting grant aid from the COA. Colleges are thus caught in a bind between giving students access to the aid—often loans—they need to succeed while not looking too expensive or raising concerns about ‘overborrowing’ (which I am generally skeptical of at the undergraduate level).

Building on previous work that I did with Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University and Braden Hosch of Stony Brook University (here is a publicly-available version of our journal article), I pulled colleges’ reported on-campus and off-campus room and board estimates for the 2018-19 academic year.[1] To put this information in comparison, I also pulled in the average county-level nine-month rent for a two-bedroom apartment that is shared with a roommate. To make this fully comparable, I also added $1,800 for nine months to account for food; this amount falls between the USDA’s current cost estimates for their thrifty and low-cost food plans.

Here is a link to the data for all 3,403 colleges that reported off-campus room and board data for the 2018-19 academic year.[2] Below, I highlight some colleges on the high end and on the low end of the estimated living allowances.

Extremely low living allowances

Thirty colleges listed living allowances of $3,000 or below in the 2018-19 academic year. Given that food is approximately $1,800 for nine months, this leaves less than $150 per month for rent. Even in affordable parts of the country, this is essentially impossible. For example, Wilmington College in Ohio is in a reasonably affordable region with the price tag of sharing a two-bedroom apartment coming in at about $350 per month. But an off-campus allowance of $2,650 for nine months is insufficient to cover this and food. (The on-campus price tag is $9,925 for nine months, suggesting that price-sensitive students are probably looking to live off campus as much as possible.)

name state On-campus room and board, 2018-19 Off-campus room and board, 2018-19 Off-campus room and board, 2017-18 Estimated off-campus room and board, 2018-19
Southern California University of Health Sciences CA N/A 1600 4800 9859.5
University of the People CA N/A 2001 2001 9859.5
Wellesley College MA 16468 2050 2050 11673
Kehilath Yakov Rabbinical Seminary NY 2800 2100 2100 9787.5
Western International University AZ N/A 2160 2160 6628.5
Central Georgia Technical College GA N/A 2184 2600 5823
Washington Adventist University MD 9370 2226 2226 9292.5
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary KY 7150 2460 2460 5638.5
The College of Wooster OH 11850 2500 2500 5107.5
Ohio Institute of Allied Health OH N/A 2500 2500 5346
Agnes Scott College GA 12330 2500 2500 6777
Sharon Regional School of Nursing PA N/A 2500 4800 4995
John Brown University AR 9224 2500 2500 5211
Elmira College NY 12000 2500 2500 5553
Estelle Medical Academy IL N/A 2500 2500 7254
Mountain Empire Community College VA N/A 2600 2600 4995
Wilmington College OH 9925 2650 2650 4945.5
Cleveland Community College NC N/A 2700 2700 4882.5
Michigan Career and Technical Institute MI 6156 2716 2664 5823
Hope College MI 10310 2760 2790 5733
Bryant & Stratton College-Online NY N/A 2800 2800 5571
Allegheny Wesleyan College OH 3600 2880 2880 4869
Daemen College NY 12915 2900 2900 5571
George C Wallace Community College-Dothan AL N/A 2983 2983 4630.5
Long Island Business Institute NY N/A 3000 3000 10039.5
Uta Mesivta of Kiryas Joel NY 6000 3000 3000 7857
Wytheville Community College VA N/A 3000 3000 4959
Skokie Institute of Allied Health and Technology IL N/A 3000 N/A 7254
Rabbinical College Ohr Yisroel NY 3000 3000 3000 10039.5
Bishop State Community College AL N/A 3000 3000 5616


Extremely high living allowances

On the high end, 28 colleges checked in with nine-month living allowances above $19,000. Even for colleges in expensive areas, students could easily afford splitting a two-bedroom apartment and eating reasonably well with this allowance. For example, Pace University in New York has a room and board allowance of $19,774 for nine months while splitting a two-bedroom apartment and buying food checks in at $10,040. But if the student has a child and needs a two-bedroom apartment, this estimate is almost spot-on.

name state On-campus room and board, 2018-19 Off-campus room and board, 2018-19 Off-campus room and board, 2017-18 Estimated off-campus room and board, 2018-19
Acupuncture and Massage College FL N/A 19144 16880 8343
Central California School of Continuing Education CA N/A 19210 19210 8739
Arcadia University PA 13800 19292 18365 7200
University of Baltimore MD N/A 19350 14200 7839
Circle in the Square Theatre School NY N/A 19375 18500 10039.5
Little Priest Tribal College NE 7000 19440 19440 4950
Pace University NY 18529 19774 18756 10039.5
New York Film Academy CA N/A 19800 19800 9859.5
Fashion Institute of Technology NY 14480 19968 19558 10039.5
Miami Ad School at Portfolio Center GA N/A 20000 14520 6777
Atlantic Cape Community College NJ N/A 20100 19600 7555.5
John F. Kennedy University CA N/A 20112 N/A 11367
Hofstra University NY 14998 20323 19850 10381.5
School of Visual Arts NY 20400 20400 19600 10039.5
California Institute of Arts & Technology CA N/A 20496 19271 11106
Hawaii Medical College HI N/A 20712 19152 11101.5
Ocean County College NJ N/A 20832 20496 8455.5
Colorado School of Healing Arts CO N/A 20940 12267 8586
New York School of Interior Design NY 21300 21300 21000 10039.5
Monterey Peninsula College CA N/A 21753 17298 8730
School of Professional Horticulture, New York Botanical Garden NY N/A 22000 22000 10039.5
The University of America CA N/A 23000 N/A 7344
Carolinas College of Health Sciences NC N/A 24831 24108 6426
Long Island University NY 14020 25000 25000 10381.5
Carlos Albizu University-Miami FL N/A 25536 25083 8343
Miami Ad School-San Francisco CA N/A 29400 29400 16065
Miami Ad School-New York NY N/A 29400 29400 10039.5
Miami Ad School-Wynwood FL N/A 29400 29400 8343


As a final note in this post, I would like to say that I frequently hear from colleges that I am using incorrect data for their institution in my analyses. My response to that is to remind them to make sure the data they provide to the U.S. Department of Education is correct. I do my best not to highlight colleges that had massive changes from year to year, as that could be a reporting error. But ultimately, it’s up to the college to get the data right until the federal government finally decides to audit a few colleges’ data each year as a quality assurance tool.

[1] This excludes colleges that report living allowances for the entire length of the program to allow for a consistent comparison across nine-month academic years. Additionally, room and board estimates are for students living off campus away from their families, as students living ‘at home’ do not have living allowance data in IPEDS.

[2] If a college requires all first-year students to live on campus, they may be missing from this dataset.