Cost of Attendance a Top Priority for Prospective Students

Amy Jenkins
February 20, 2023

Cost of Attendance a Top Priority for Prospective Students

When it comes to deciding where to go to college, students want straightforward answers on what it will cost to attend. In fact, 75% of students seek an estimate from a college or university before applying.

Unfortunately, many higher education institutions struggle to offer accurate estimates. This makes it even more confusing for students to budget for college—and things like financial uncertainty can deter students from the start. This is especially true for first-generation and underrepresented college students who already face added difficulties in accessing higher education.

Despite the fact that 25% of total college costs are covered by grants and scholarships, students still feel stressed about paying for their higher education, especially because that number isn’t something everyone knows about. In other words, a lot of students assume they might have to pay the price they see, or wonder what the actual price is.

More than ever, they’re seeking a straightforward answer when they inquire about the cost of attendance. Here’s why that’s an increasingly important demand for financial directors to meet.

Families Need a Reliable Cost of Attendance

If a family is on the fence about whether they can afford higher education, understanding what it costs is fundamental in their decision-making—especially if they’re going to take out loans to cover the costs. To provide an accurate cost of attendance, financial directors must calculate direct fees like tuition and indirect expenses.

In addition to tuition, this includes costs related to housing, books, transportation, meals, and other day-to-day expenses. Without including these factors in a school’s overall cost, students and families are unaware of the true price of higher education when deciding whether to enroll. In fact, up to 86% of parents say that they have difficulty understanding college costs in the first place.

But why are these estimates so hard to nail down—especially when financial directors and admissions staff are so focused on enrolling prospective students? The struggle comes from indicating which expenses are included in the total cost of attendance and how much aid a student will receive. The latter is particularly important for low-income families.

Simply put, if a student and their family can’t find a reliable cost of attendance, they’re less likely to apply.

Enter NPCs

NPCs are a great way for colleges and universities to provide an estimated cost of attendance to prospective students and families. All higher education websites are required to offer NPCs that break down direct and indirect costs, like those mentioned above. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Unfortunately, not all NPCs are created equal—and there are quite a few ways NPCs can do a disservice to prospective students. For example, if the calculator isn’t personalized toward each student (taking into account things like part-time or transfer cases, for instance), the cost calculated won’t be accurate.

Other times, NPCs might be difficult to use, use language that families can’t understand, or simply take too long to complete. Though viable options to provide students and families with a direct cost of attendance, only a great NPC will make a difference for financial aid directors and enrollment staff. If you're interested in learning more about how to demystify college costs for prospective students, specifically with the help of a robust NPC, Meadow is hosting a webinar on March 9 with the help of industry experts.

Understanding Financial Aid

Above, we highlighted that around 25% of college costs are covered by grants and scholarships for the average student. Still, that doesn’t mean financial aid is a simple concept. In fact, just like families struggle to understand a college’s cost of attendance, they’re also apt to misunderstand what financial aid is available to them.

For this reason, financial aid officers must be able to provide context around what aid is available for students with various financial needs. To do this, they can rely on an NPC that takes into account need-based and merit-based financial aid, amongst other relevant factors.

After all, there’s a lot of aid available. In 2022, 48% of undergraduate students were expected to receive some form of federal aid, either through grants, scholarships, or work-studies. These aid offers were worth around $14,160 on average per student, helping offset the cost of higher education.

There are plenty of resources available for prospective students that offset the total cost of attendance. But once again, students are looking for a straightforward answer about that number. And staff can only provide that answer after factoring in financial aid.

Making Informed Decisions

Providing an accurate cost of attendance is essential for students and families to make informed decisions about enrolling in a college or university. It’s the first step in breaking down all the expenses associated with a specific higher education institution—both direct and indirect.

Financial aid directors at universities can do this by making sure that all costs of attendance, such as housing, books, and other indirect expenses are included in the final cost. Some might rely on a robust NPC to do most of the heavy lifting.

The more detailed the financial breakdowns are, the more empowered students and families feel to apply and confirm their enrollment. When done right, being transparent about costs can be a huge advantage.

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