What’s the ‘real price of college’? New project seeks to sharpen estimates.

Under today’s federal guidelines and formulas, colleges aren’t always able to give students visibility into the real cost of attendance. A new initiative from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice is looking to help. Funded by a $650,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, the new project, called “The Real Price of College: Improving Estimates of Demonstrated Financial Need” will engage six Texas colleges and community colleges in exploring ways to improve calculations and communication about students’ estimated cost of attendance.

Mismatches between students’ financial expectations and reality can have significant implications for attainment, Hope Center researchers say. “Our work demonstrates that when students don’t know what college really costs, they have trouble making ends meet, even falling short on money for food and housing,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Hope Center, said in a statement. “Community colleges and public universities are also dealing with their own budget crunches; we hope this project will help them identify cost-effective ways to help students.”

Targeting common pitfalls in current formulas

Speaking with Education Dive, Eddy Conroy, the Hope Center’s assistant director of community engagement and research application, outlined several ways current cost-of-attendance calculations fall short. Federal formulas for calculating students’ expected family contribution (EFC), for instance, “truncate to zero,” even though some of those zeros should really be negative numbers. “We want to help colleges see that there’s a lot more differentiation than currently recognized among students who have zero EFCs,” says Conroy.  

Students who live at home during college are especially at risk for cost underestimates: colleges and the federal government assume that students living at home have fewer expenses, whereas surveys show that “quite a lot of them are helping to pay for expenses living with family,” Conroy noted. In addition, many colleges struggle to precisely estimate off-campus food and housing costs—calculations that can require specialized knowledge of rental markets.    

Conroy says the Hope Center will help participating schools identify and implement best practices for connecting students with emergency aid and public benefits. Researchers also plan to create explainer videos designed to educate students about the financial aid system. “We want to tread a fine line between encouraging students to look for support but also not discouraging them from continuing their education,” he says.

The student perspective

Students like Alysha Acosta, of Columbia University in New York, stand to benefit from clearer information about college costs. Speaking with the Columbia Daily Spectator, Acosta recalled how she thought she was receiving a “full four-year scholarship” to Columbia but later realized that she was on the hook to pay a student contribution fee, which she struggles to afford while providing for her family. For students from low-income families, the fact that the student contribution isn’t covered by any financial aid package “can be burdensome, hindering professional advancement and straining mental and physical health,” the Daily Spectator writes.

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