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More than tuition: College costs are often hard to figure

A guest post from Alyse Gray Parker

If we want to help more people earn college degrees, we’d better start by making the costs of college clear for all students trying to reach that goal. 

Lumina Foundation, where I worked this summer as an intern, wants 60 percent of Americans to have postsecondary credentials by 2025. This is an ambitious goal — but right now, we’re only at 46 percent.

Why? For many students, college just isn’t affordable. And, as I found out during my work at Lumina, it’s even hard for students to know exactly how much it’s going to cost to live, eat and study at a college. Those cost-of-living estimates can be very unclear and confusing.

As a student attending a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) — the University of Texas at San Antonio — I wanted to find out if HSIs make it easier for students to understand college costs. After all, these institutions serve an important role in higher education; at least 25 percent of their full-time students are Hispanic. I also wanted to find out if geography makes a difference by comparing HSI costs in San Antonio to those in Los Angeles (another area with many Hispanic students).

As Hispanic populations rise in the U.S., HSIs are increasingly important. In 2014, 35 percent of Hispanics ages 18–24 were enrolled in a two- or four-year colleges, up from 22 percent in 1993. Yet, just 15 percent of Hispanics ages 25–29 in 2014 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. While these numbers are concerning, I believe HSIs have the unique ability to address this issue.

With Lumina’s 60 percent goal in mind, I took a deeper dive into the causes of these low attainment rates. Working with Lumina’s finance team, I dug into the true costs of living. This led me to a Wisconsin HOPE Lab study, which compared cost-of-living estimates in similar geographic areas. Using the MIT Living Wage Calculator as a model, the authors calculated benchmarks for local living expenses using government data. An interactive map offered easy comparisons of college living costs in various areas.

Some surprising conclusions

What did I find out?

  • HSIs — like most other institutions — fail to accurately estimate living costs at their colleges. For students on tight budgets, this is not helpful.
  • Hispanic students face huge barriers to college enrollment and completion. Knowing how much college will cost and finding ways to pay for and stay in school are major obstacles.
  • Even cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles, which feature several HSIs, have comparatively low attainment rates for their Hispanic students.

Using Lumina’s Stronger Nation website, I found that:

In Texas:

  • The attainment rate for all students is 42.2 percent.
  • The attainment rate is 35.9 percent in Bexar County, Texas (where 46.6 percent of residents are Hispanic).
  • Hispanics have the lowest rate of attainment in the state at 19.7 percent.

In California:

  • The attainment rate for all students is 48.4 percent.
  • The attainment rate is 38.6 percent in Los Angeles County (where 27 percent of residents are Hispanic).
  • Hispanics have the lowest rate of attainment in the state 18.3 percent.

More details on San Antonio and Los Angeles

The costs of attending an HSI can vary greatly based on location. San Antonio and Los Angeles are two large metro areas, each with several public or private not-for-profit HSIs that serve large populations of Hispanic students. I compared the HSIs using Stronger Nation’s interactive map to see how accurately the HSIs are estimating students’ cost of living. (Wisconsin HOPE Lab defined these costs as room and board, transportation, entertainment, and other personal expenses. This does not include tuition, fees or textbook costs.)

Cost-of-living snapshots

I found that, across the board, HSIs aren’t correctly estimating these living costs. In fact, they’re either overestimating or underestimating those costs every time.

The cost-of-living estimate in Bexar County, Texas is $10,818; here are the HSIs’ estimates:

 

The cost-of-living estimate in Los Angeles County, California is $15,849; here are the HSIs’ estimates:

 

Our Next Steps

HSIs, and our higher education system, need to address this cost confusion and clarify what those costs are now and what students can expect to pay in the future.

At Lumina, we understand how the nation’s Hispanic students face huge barriers to college success, and we want to help. We believe HSIs and other institutions that serve minorities should play important roles in the policy conversation.

Let’s start by improving these cost-of-living estimates so students can know just how much they’ll have to pay to realize their dream of earning a college degree.


Alyse Gray Parker is a Ph.D. student at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She interned with Lumina this summer in Washington, D.C. She is interested in higher education policy related to attainment and minority-serving institutions.

 
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