The real cost of college for older students

Research on college affordability often focuses on rising tuition costs, but a new report from The Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality shows how living costs “are far more dominant components” of the expenses incurred by older college students. On average, college students between the ages of 25 and 45 spend $30,900 annually in non-tuition costs—nearly three times the average annual in-state tuition fee at public, four-year colleges.

Nearly one-third of the nation’s college students are adult learners, with women and people of color disproportionately represented in the group. Moreover, nearly 63 percent of older students have low incomes, making it all the more crucial that they can plan for the true cost of college attendance and access resources to help. The report cautions that, for low-income students, “even one unexpected expense can be the difference between degree completion and leaving college early.”

Living expenses often undercounted

Yet, calculations of students’ total “cost of attendance” (COA) frequently underestimate older students’ living costs—with implications for students’ aid packages, choice of institution, and chance of degree completion. COA estimates also can vary widely. For instance, Miami Dade College’s estimate of off-campus housing costs is more than three times the estimate provided by the for-profit Miami International University of Art and Design, even though the institutions are less than one mile apart.

Hoping to shine a light on the actual financial responsibilities shouldered by students ages 25 to 45, Georgetown researchers analyzed data from Consumer Expenditure surveys. They also considered several categories of expenses currently omitted, or undercounted, among federal allowable living expenses, including dependent living costs, child support, vehicle purchases, and health insurance premiums.

That comprehensive accounting, they note, “is particularly important,” as more than 60 percent of older students have a dependent child, married partner, or both, compared to nearly 10 percent of younger students.

The researchers found that housing, transportation, and food expenditures made up more than 80 percent of older students’ non-tuition costs. Housing accounted for more than 40 percent of expenses beyond tuition, and researchers point out that older college students are more than three times more likely to experience homelessness than younger students. Dependent care was another significant outlay for student parents.

A call for more accurate estimates, more comprehensive support

Writing that many older students “are forced to navigate a system that treats their lived experiences as an exception in ways that overburden and undermine their educational success,” the researchers call on policymakers and colleges to better support older students by:

  • Reducing older students’ out-of-pocket spending on living costs through programs that assist in meeting basic needs. The study authors point to the City University of New York (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) initiative as a testament to the power of providing those resources.
  • Currently, the total COA for the average older student attending a public four-year college in their home state is nearly seven times the maximum Pell Grant.
  • Expanding students’ access to financial aid and public benefits by considering the unique needs of older students, such as their increased likelihood of attending part-time.
  • Taking a standardized, inclusive approach to measuring costs beyond tuition, including the full range of older students’ financial responsibilities.

“We need to appreciate the actual cost that these students face so that we can help them fully afford it. And so that they can then go on to complete college, complete affordably, and enjoy some economic mobility as a result,” lead study author Vincent Palacios, a senior policy analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, told CNBC.

Older students, he continued, should be recognized for the persistence they show in pursuing higher education, despite the many hurdles they might encounter. “We also need to care about these students because we all want a society where there’s more than one pathway to success,” Palacios said.

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