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Inconsistent Information on Indirect Expenses

June 26, 2020
By Madeline St. Amour

Inconsistent Information on Indirect Expenses

For Ruby Portillo and her friends, the possibility of becoming homeless is a genuine fear.

Portillo, a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, feels overwhelmed by her financial responsibility to cover both college expenses and living costs such as housing. She's taken out the maximum amount of federal loans available to her, but after paying for tuition, she has barely enough for her living costs.

Debbie Matesun, a student at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, faces the same struggles. She works multiple jobs to cover nontuition expenses, but it's not enough.

"I’m constantly forced to choose which indirect expense takes precedent over the other," Matesun said. Her real costs turned out to be double the cost estimates her university provided before she enrolled. Now, Matesun can't participate in campus clubs because of their extra costs, or pursue a double major because she can't afford the extra courses.

​These students are not alone. They spoke at a news conference sponsored by Representative Ayanna Pressley, which focused on a new study on indirect college expenses from uAspire, a nonprofit focused on making college affordable for all.

"Long before COVID-19, our nation was already in the midst of a college affordability, college completion and student debt crisis," Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said at the start of the virtual conference.

The uAspire study found broad discrepancies in both how transparent institutions are and how they calculated estimates for indirect expenses. At most institutions, these nontuition costs make up more than half of the total price of attending college.

It's difficult for students to earn enough to offset these costs. The average federal work-study jobs for undergraduates cover only 19 percent of nontuition costs, according to Laura Keane, uAspire chief policy officer and a co-author of the report.

The lack of information and incorrect cost estimates can also lead some students, like Matesun, to face unexpected expenses. The researchers said they were shocked by how many colleges left this information out completely, or at least made it difficult to find, said Brendan Williams, director of knowledge at uAspire and a co-author of the report.

They looked at websites for 820 institutions across five states and were unable to find estimates of indirect expenses on 39 percent of those sites. The report also found wide variation of how valuable the information was on the websites that did have it. Some included full itemized lists with estimates and explanations, while others just had lists that were missing information or outdated.

The terms used to describe these costs also vary widely. For example, 61 terms were used to describe housing and food, Williams said.

Part of this is due to complexities financial aid administrators face when calculating these costs, he said. The researchers spoke with several administrators about the challenges. For example, institutions use different approaches to calculating estimates. They might survey students, collect external data, base estimates on midrange prices or conduct local research. Administrators also said they receive little guidance on how to make calculations. Some institutions also aim to make costs seem lower to attract more students.

While one area of the federal Higher Education Act says institutions must communicate the full price of attendance to students, it doesn't specify what that means or where and how institutions need to do so, Keane said.

Students need specificity, she said, which is why the report argues that each college should be required to have itemized breakdowns of direct and indirect costs on their websites.

Calculations would be difficult to standardize on a national level, but states and university systems could do more to provide consistent guidelines to create some clarity for students. When comparing institutions only miles apart, the report found variations of more than $8,000 in their listed estimated indirect expenses.

"Even across certain institutional systems, we did see inconsistency in the terms used. If you’re all part of the same higher education system, the terminology you’re using should be similar," Williams said. "There is a need for things to be relatively comparable and for students to understand what is included in the basket of goods."

UAspire is advocating to increase Pell Grant funding and to allow need-based aid to cover indirect expenses, to require colleges to provide transparent and accessible information on indirect expenses and standardize the terms and definitions they use, and to improve guidance on how to calculate estimates and simplify how students can access public benefits.

​Higher education experts agree this is an important issue to solve. The report's recommendations, such as increasing funding for the federal Pell Grant and requiring institutions to provide clear breakdowns explaining how they calculated the costs, are keys to solving this problem, according to Megan McClean Coval, vice president of policy at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Sometimes, institutions face challenges from software providers when trying to comply with the latter recommendation, McClean Coval said. Part of NASFAA's code of conduct requires colleges to break down costs, but that doesn't work with all software.

Some experts also think it's important to ensure students understand which costs are directly tied to college and which are not. Some expenses would exist whether or not the student goes to college, said Sandy Baum, a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Attending college incurs expenses like textbooks, but people need to eat whether or not they are a student.

Students also have a lot of discretion over some expenses, Baum said, which can make estimate calculations difficult. They could rent a nice condo or share a bedroom in a run-down apartment.

It's also difficult to focus solely on students when addressing problems like food and housing insecurity.

"Students should have enough money to eat, but so should everybody else," Baum said, adding that it wouldn't be right to only try to solve hunger issues for people who are also attending college. Policy makers need to think about these societal problems in a broader sense when looking for solutions, she said.

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