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Tuition and Fees Rise, but Cost of Living—by Colleges’ Estimate—Falls

As usual, the U.S. Department of Education is a bit behind when it comes to data.

Published tuition and fees increased by about 4 percent at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges and by nearly 5 percent at public two-year colleges from 2011-12 to 2013-14, when adjusted for inflation, according to a new release from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The preliminary data were collected from about 7,400 postsecondary institutions in the fall of 2013 through the Integrated Postsecondary Education System, known as Ipeds.

On-campus room and board rose at about the same rate as tuition, while off-campus room and board rose by less than 1 percent at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges and fell by about 1 percent at public two-year colleges.

But we knew all of that already: The College Board released data in October for tuition, fees, room, and board in 2013-14 that showed roughly the same trends in the cost of attendance, or COA.

What’s new from Ipeds is data on the average cost of books, supplies, and other expenses, including, for example, laundry, transportation, and entertainment. Those figures, estimated by financial-aid offices, actually dropped from 2011-12 to 2013-14 at all types of four-year institutions, when adjusted for inflation.

The average cost of books and supplies fell by nearly 2 percent at public four-year colleges, by less than 1 percent at private nonprofit colleges, and by more than 9 percent at private for-profit colleges.

The “other expenses” category varies, depending on whether students live on campus, off campus without family, or off campus with family. But the amount dropped by about 4 percent at public four-year institutions and about 3 percent at private nonprofit institutions.

How could the cost of books, supplies, and other expenses not be at least keeping up with inflation? Robert J. Kelchen, an assistant professor of education leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University, tweeted one theory this morning:

“It doesn’t seem, given economic conditions, that those numbers have actually gone down,” Mr. Kelchen said in an interview.

Financial-aid officials balked at the notion that they would cook the numbers.

“I’ve never known of anyone who has suggested that that is either appropriate or a good idea,” said Susan Murphy, senior associate dean of academic and enrollment services at the University of San Francisco.

“Sooner or later, reality kicks in, and students are going to come back to you and say, ‘This isn’t working. You said I only would spend $1,000 on books, but I’m actually spending three times that,’” she said.

We’ve written before about inconsistencies in how different colleges calculate the cost of living and other expenses. The new data suggest that there may also be problems with how colleges adjust their estimates over time.

Ms. Murphy said her office reviews its estimates for books and other expenses every two years or so, using surveys and informal studies—for example, asking the students who work in the financial-aid office—to gauge how much students are spending in those areas. There are no federal guidelines for how colleges are supposed to do that.

“Right now the federal regulations list what components should be part of cost of attendance, but do not specify a particular way of arriving at those costs,” Ms. Murphy said. “I think it would be very, very complicated for them to come up with something that’s fair.”

One factor in the drop may be changes in how students get access to course materials, Ms. Murphy said. Students who buy or rent books online might be reducing the cost of books and supplies, and financial-aid offices may be adjusting their estimates accordingly.

Those incidental expenses, however, make up a relatively small percentage of the overall cost of attendance: about 15 percent at four-year public colleges and 10 percent at four-year private nonprofit colleges.

So why is this important? Because the total cost of attendance is used to calculate a college’s net price, what students pay after grants and other aid. Net price is increasingly used to give prospective students an idea of how much a given college will actually cost, and it is likely to be incorporated into the Obama administration’s forthcoming college-ratings system.

If the cost of attendance is off by even a few hundred dollars, it could affect how much a student has to pay out of pocket to cover his or her total cost.

“I’d like to know more on how colleges are calculating these expenses,” Mr. Kelchen said. “Are they doing it with a representative sample of students? Or are they doing it with the net price in mind?”

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