Students on the Hunt for Financial Clarity

Amy Jenkins
February 21, 2023

Students on the Hunt for a True Cost of Attendance

Higher education is often viewed as an investment. Students and families spend time and resources to seek out the best colleges and universities available to them, then pay top dollar to enroll in their preferred academic program.

Given how pricey higher education has become, and the broader set of options that students might consider in addition to the traditional college experience, students today are seeking a true cost of attendance before committing to a school.

In fact, though financial wellness is a concern for students at the top of the enrollment funnel, what a student ends up paying for higher education has a direct effect on their success while they’re enrolled and after they graduate.

Let’s explore this journey from a student’s perspective, starting from the application process and ending with post-grad outcomes.

The Short Term: Attendance Costs & Financial Aid

One student survey from Trellis found that there is a disconnect between what students think they can afford and the true cost of attending college. To address this, students are looking for a direct answer when asking how much it costs to attend. However, factors like need-based financial aid, whether they’re enrolling full-time or part-time, and even whether they’re a first-gen college student will affect that cost.

Studies from Sallie Mae and Trellis have found that this final cost has a direct effect on college enrollment and where students apply. In fact, 75% of students look for a straightforward cost breakdown before they consider applying. One of the primary ways that higher education institutions can address this need is by providing a robust NPC.

The average NPC factors in direct costs like tuition and fees, along with indirect costs like room and board, transportation, and supplies. But, as outlined above, these costs shift according to each student based on their specific circumstances and financial aid needs. And many NPCs are set up to only work for full-time first-year students, leaving everyone else to make guesses.

And an inaccurate cost of attendance can dissuade students from applying… even if higher education is cheaper than they think. According to Sallie Mae, the average amount a family thought they would pay for college in 2020-21 was $31,917. In reality, they owed an average of $25,017.

Viewed in this way, providing an accurate cost of attendance from a quality NPC can directly influence a student’s decision to apply to a school. It can also make things easier for staff. For example, Christy Miller, Executive Director of Financial Aid at Wayland Baptist University, decided to work with Meadow to provide students with a highly accurate NPC. Previously, the only way for prospective students to access a concrete cost of attendance was to communicate directly with admissions staff. Now, with the help of Meadow, more families and prospective students are using WBU's NPC than ever before - which means staff has more time to focus on other enrollment concerns.

The ‘Mid-Term’: Succeeding in College

The goal of financial aid officers isn’t just to provide an accurate cost of attendance to prospective students. They’re also focused on promoting financial wellness while students are completing their degrees… but that’s hard to do if students are grappling with debt and other financial stressors while enrolled.

A student's financial wellness directly affects their college experience in several ways. First, they have to manage day-to-day expenses, such as tuition, books, and housing—often on a shoestring budget. Second, students must also budget for emergencies and unexpected expenses.

Put simply, promoting financial wellness can help students make informed decisions about their future. For example, students who understand their financial situation can make better decisions about whether to pursue additional studies, such as graduate school or spending a semester abroad.

To help foster financial wellness during enrollment, universities are offering resources like student success centers and internship networks. These student success centers might be as simple as a hub where tutors, mentors, and students gather to foster academic success. And internship networks might bring together an institution’s top alumni to connect them with active students to develop professional skills. The latter, in particular, is a facet of career development that more students are coming to expect from their university experience as a way to gauge ROI.

The Long Term: Success After Graduation

Above, we mentioned that higher education is an investment. That means that a student’s ROI will be determined by what happens after they graduate and enter the job market. Once again, this long-term outcome is directly influenced by the original cost of attendance estimate provided by financial aid staff.

That’s because a student’s post-graduation goals are directly affected by their financial situation. After graduating, students need to pay back loans and otherwise cover the steep costs associated with their education. Some might have planned for this from the start, weighing their student loan options with their projected earnings.

Beyond financial concerns, students also want to understand what they will be getting out of their college experience. And one way that they’ll gauge this outcome is through finances. For example, a campus with robust student life might be worth a higher tuition cost. For others, that higher cost might instead be worthwhile when tacked on to a leading STEM or creative arts program.

Ultimately, students want to know that they are making a good decision in choosing a college and that their investment will pay off in the long run. And to help them make that decision, a university must be able to provide an accurate price breakdown straight from the start of the enrollment process, whether through an NPC or another customized estimate. Financial transparency helps students and families decide where to apply, while also helping universities to increase enrollment.

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