When it comes to skyrocketing college costs, tuition isn't the only culprit

Written by
Peter Dunn

You couldn't avoid a conversation about college costs and student loans if you tried. Everyone is talking about the costs associated with higher education. So far the conversation has revolved around the growing student loan bubble and the escalating cost of education. The scrutiny has been focused on actual tuition costs, but as of yet there hasn't been enough scrutiny on the percentage of non-tuition costs in relation to total college costs.

The full breakdown of college expenses looks like the bar tab for England's national rugby team. The list is long, diverse, and it will leave everyone involved woozy. The actual cost of educating a student (tuition) is barely half the battle. Take for instance the list of colleges in Indiana and their expenses (above). Most of the public schools in Indiana charge just as much for non-tuition expenses (room, board, and fees), as they do for the cost of educating a student (tuition).

We've got to start asking the question: do schools want to educate you, or do they want to charge top dollar to house you? It's a fair question based on the policies of most schools. Most schools REQUIRE freshman students to live in campus housing. And by campus housing, I mean housing that is rented from the college. Schools will tell you, as they told me, that these policies exist to maintain graduation and retention rates. Seems like a good explanation, right? But what is retention? To a school, retention is how they keep you there to educate you. To a business, retention is how they keep you there to sell you stuff. Is the freshman housing policy of most colleges a retention strategy or a retention strategy? To be fair, I'm about to oversimplify the housing issue. How big is a dorm room? 150 square feet or so? That seems about right. So why does it cost so much to live in a 150 foot cinder block room for less than nine months? Excellent question.

The cost to run another household

One of the most challenging aspects of divorce is the fact that two households are created. The economic challenges that come with running an additional household are vast. In many cases total income doesn't change, yet housing, utility, and food costs rise significantly. Oddly enough, this phenomenon is repeated when a student goes to college. Income doesn't change, yet the number of households does. Somehow this has slipped by the general public.

It's important to step back and ask yourself a very uncomfortable question for 2012: "Do we need to forego the social college experience in order to make college costs efficient again?" I know it's not exactly fun to read; I know I'm pretty uncomfortable typing it. For some people, the answer is yes. Some people can afford to spend money on a four year socialization experiment, some people can't. I realize this isn't a popular stance, but when has a popular stance ever solved anything? Right. Never.

The solution to your problem isn't going to come from the institutions or government regulation. Feel free to wait for that to affect your life in a positive way, and in the meantime a select few will navigate their way through this avoidable financial maelstrom. The immediate solution to escalating (total) college cost is to expose yourself to as few of the costs associated with college as possible. This means pay your tuition and little else. Yet few people choose this solution. The numbers above support my assertion. Reduce your room and board costs, and you can significantly reduce the cost of your college education. This is especially true for public schools. The numbers suggest that private schools have done a much better job controlling non-tuition costs than public schools have.

In some cases, students are able to reduce the total cost of their college education by 50 percent simply by living at home with their parents. Is this socially acceptable? Ehhh. It's no less socially awkward than graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt that you have no means to pay off.

One additional thing became abundantly clear during our research, there's still a trend of colleges representing a higher total cost, and then immediately discounting tuition based on easy to obtain grants, endowment awards, or scholarships. Unfortunately this pricing strategy is reminiscent of buying jewelry, not an education. Many colleges will say something to the effect of "It costs $40k to go to ABC University, but almost every student receives an immediate $7000 grant/scholarship." Why? What's the point of this? Trust me, I understand the mechanics, but I just don't see the point. The strategy is to present prospective students with a deal. Who doesn't love a free $7,000 worth of education? I don't believe the colleges can maintain innocence while still employing these sales techniques. Transparent pricing is purported, but it isn't reality.

Once again, the current solution is clear. The solution lies within your decision making. If you are fearful of the troubles that student loans will bring, as you should be, then reduce the total cost of your education by denying a college the privilege of being your landlord.

Pete the Planner is the author of the book Avoid Student Loans. It was released in January of 2012. It helps students and parents reduce the amount of student loans used in the course of seeking an education.

Pete the Planner's list of Indiana College Costs 2012-13 list outlines several different components relating to overall college costs. The total costs data, taken from each university or college's website, includes tuition, room and board for the 2012-13 school year (fall and spring semesters). Based upon those numbers, the total non-tuition related costs are the approximate percentages outlining the non-tuition related fees paid directly to the university (e.g. additional fees, room and board). The middle column presents CNN Money's total estimated costs after financial aid (scholarships and grants, not loans), which include tuition, fees, room and board, and books. Books were not included in our total costs data.

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