Research News

Study finds many colleges report inaccurate living expenses

June 08, 2015

An article in U.S. News and World Report references a paper, titled "The Costs of College Attendance: Trends, Variation, and Accuracy in Institutional Living Cost Allowances," which is co-authored by UW-Madison’s Sara Goldrick-Rab.

The paper is co-written with Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University and a WISCAPE affiliate, and Braden J. Hosch, an assistant vice president at Stony Brook University. Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology. She also is a senior scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE) and the founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

In their research, the authors found higher education institutions’ cost-of-living estimates to be highly variable, even among colleges and universities located virtually right next to each other. The estimates, the researchers determined, were low for about 30 percent of colleges and high for another 11 percent.

The article explains that calculating living costs is “more than a matter of academic debate,” as is has a very real impact on student financial aid.

"Your ability to take out federal loans is compromised if your school has underestimated what it costs to live," says Goldrick-Rab. "You're capped at the cost of attendance. It leads to ugly conversations between students and college financial aid officers, where the student says, 'I don't have enough money,' and the financial aid officer says, 'You have to learn how to budget.' And the student leaves with no recourse."