Costs Beyond Tuition Pose Unique Challenge for College Completion Rates Among Older Students, New Report Finds

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Looking beyond rising tuition rates is needed to get a more holistic view of the challenges older students face in completing college, according to a new report, which found older students are facing living costs that are often underestimated.

The paper from Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI) aims to improve college affordability and economic security policies that can help increase college completion rates among marginalized groups, including older students between the ages of 25 and 45. 

“The unique barriers facing older college students remain underappreciated by institutions of higher education and by society more broadly,” the report said. “Focusing on older students’ costs beyond tuition expands the nation’s higher education narrative to better acknowledge the independent student experience. It is an important part of ensuring equitable access to quality education and jobs, thereby expanding pathways to economic security and mobility.”

On average, institutions’ estimated annualized living costs for older students were about $2,200 less than student-reported spending on costs beyond tuition. Single parents experienced the highest gap, reporting an average discrepancy of $6,800 between what they spend on living costs and what institutions estimate they need.

Since a student's cost of attendance (COA) sets an upper limit on the amount of financial aid they are eligible to receive, any underestimate of living expenses can limit an administrator or government official’s ability to equitably carry out resources meant to promote college affordability and completion.

“For low-income students who are just able to string together enough resources to cover their tuition, fees, and living costs, even one unexpected expense can be the difference between degree completion and stopping out,” the report said, suggesting certain supports like zero interest loans or case management services can help ease the burden and improve completion rates.

Older students represent nearly one-third of undergraduate students, with 58% of older students delaying college until at least one year after they received their high school diploma or equivalent, which the Department of Education (ED) also considers a completion risk factor. High rates of working while attending college and/or attending part-time also affect older students’ pace of accumulating credit hours, contributing to their lengthier times to degree completion, and increasing their total cost along the way. 

Research also showed that for the graduating class earning a four-year degree in 2016, the average total amount of student debt for students who started with no delay and were younger than 25 upon graduation was $19,200, while older students accumulated $30,500 on average.

The paper also found that older students faced heightened burdens when it came to housing security, citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics that found older students reported being homeless or at risk of homelessness at a rate more than four times that of their younger peers.

“In the same data, more than half of all single parent older students live below the poverty line, and more than a quarter experience or are at risk of homelessness,” the report said.

GCPI plans to issue additional reports highlighting costs beyond tuition across seven expense categories: housing, transportation, food, health care, dependent care, technology and course materials, and personal expenses.

“While these challenges often lead to higher costs beyond tuition, postsecondary institutions and financial aid policies and practices have not sufficiently considered these expenses,” the report said. “With inadequate support, older students are left to make difficult tradeoffs between expenses necessary to maintain a basic standard of living, let alone a modest one that would better support their academic achievement.”

NASFAA has an informative self-study guide available to members, where you will learn the principles and purposes of the student budget construction process, gain an understanding of how to build student budgets (including sources for setting the value of cost components), learn about the various allowable budget components and restrictions for certain categories of students, and become familiar with budget recalculations and the impact of non-Title IV aid on the cost of attendance.


Publication Date: 8/14/2020

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