News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

Students, Higher Ed Experts Discuss Ways to Address Nontuition Costs

Monday, May 27, 2019  
Posted by: Karen Lopez, Communications Intern
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Nada Elhawary, a student at George Mason University in Virginia, sometimes finds herself not buying textbooks until a month into her courses. This gives her time to calculate whether buying any required materials is worth the expense or if those dollars can be put toward another one of her college costs. So Elhawary falls behind on her readings and assignments simply because she cannot always afford a textbook she will only need for one semester.

When discussing college affordability, policymakers and other stakeholders sometimes only take tuition costs into account, assuming that college students will be able to figure the rest out. This is an unrealistic expectation, especially for low-income and first-generation students.

Last week, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) published a report titled "The Cost of Opportunity: Student Stories of College Affordability." The IHEP report is a result of a copious study on a distinctly diverse group of 17 low- and middle-income students over the course of two college semesters. It focuses on equitable solutions to college affordability issues.

"Affordability is inherently a racial equity issue,” said Wayne Taliaferro, strategy officer for finance and federal policy at Lumina Foundation. He indicated that we must enact changes to stop making it too difficult for students to access higher education.

"The learning part should be rigorous, but everything else should be easy,” Taliaferro said.

The report was released at IHEP’s 2019 National Policy Summit, an event that included various panels on college affordability. One of these panels focused on the burden of nontuition costs from the perspective of students, institutions, and policymakers. Nontuition costs include books, access codes for course content, food, housing, transportation, and emergency expenses. “Comprehensive affordability goes beyond tuition,” said Taliaferro.

Graphic courtesy of IHEP.

DeJoiry McKenzie-Simmons, a recent graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., described these expenditures as “those type of costs that you generally do not think about,” and consequently do not include in your budget.

When an unexpected cost arises, students are forced to make tough decisions and sacrifices. The cost of a $250 textbook and an $80 access code could be the difference between eating or being able to pay rent for the month.

Elhawary, the George Mason student, is one of the many students who has no family near her university with whom she could live over the summer. Lacking the funds to buy a plane ticket home, she moved in with six other schoolmates into a two-bedroom apartment to make ends meet.

What Can Be Done To Help Students?

The panelists also offered strategic approaches to help students afford the true cost of college and give them a real opportunity to obtain a college degree. There should be an effort to invest in the students’ support system at all levels in the education system, said Dawn Medley, the associate vice president for enrollment management at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Wayne State University works to support students and their nontuition costs in a sustainable manner by offering flexible emergency funds. The flexible funds allow the institution to address the housing issues, food insecurity, and other challenges its students face. The objective is to decrease interruptions in students’ education.

McKenzie-Simmons suggested that institutions be more understanding of students, support internship stipends for lower-income students, and “be more flexible” with financial aid deadlines and requirements. These are not issues that economically stable students are troubled by, and addressing these issues would help level the academic playing field for students from different economic backgrounds.

Medley also advocated for a regional mass transit system to support accessibility. Detroit, like many other regions, has “no way to move people between education, job, and living opportunities.” Students often find transportation to their colleges to be expensive or inaccessible. Therefore, students do not consider higher education as an option for their futures.

IHEP Recommendations

IHEP’s report made recommendations to institutions, policymakers, and other stakeholders for the advancement of equity through college affordability. These include:

  • Strengthening the Pell Grant. (This is also one of NCAN's federal policy priorities.)
  • Better targeting financial aid funding towards students with the greatest need.
  • Providing greater transparency to students navigating a complicated and confusing higher education landscape.
  • Including students in policy conversations about supporting their success.