The real cost of school for first-generation college students

“The biggest gap in understanding the cost of college has to do with nontuition expenses, which are primarily living expenses,” said the author of a new report.
A student walks on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles in 2012.
A student walks on the UCLA campus. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images file

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By Esta Pratt-Kielley, Parent Toolkit

Students across the country are graduating high school and getting ready for the transition to college. Most have already selected the college they’ll be attending in the fall, and submitted an enrollment deposit. But this deposit — typically around $300 — is only the first expense of many that students and families will have to factor in to paying for college.

Most people know college is expensive. But the real cost of college goes beyond the “sticker price” tuition advertised by colleges and universities. And the real cost of college hits some students harder than others.

In a recent survey released by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, 45 percent of student respondents from over 100 institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days, which means they did not have reliable access to nutritious food. In addition to food insecurity, 60 percent of survey respondents at two-year institutions and 48 percent at four-year institutions experience housing insecurity, which is defined as “a broad set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently.” Homelessness affects 18 percent of survey respondents at two-year institutions and 14 percent at four-year institutions.

“The biggest gap in understanding the cost of college has to do with nontuition expenses, which are primarily living expenses,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, director of the Hope Center and the lead author of the report.

This isn’t just about the stereotypical “broke college student” living off of ramen noodles in a dorm. According to the federal government’s 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, insufficient food and housing undermines postsecondary educational experiences for many of today’s college students, including their ability to complete their degrees.

“This is a basic needs issue,” Goldrick-Rab says. “It’s about the basic needs of college students across the country not being met.”

According to the Hope Center report, there are disparities in the students who lack these basic needs while in college. Fifty-eight percent of students who identify as African American or black and 50 percent of students identifying as Hispanic or Latinx said they experienced food insecurity, while 39 percent of students identifying as white or caucasian said they did.

The problem starts long before a student comes to college. An analysis released this week by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that children who are black or Latinx or are from low-socioeconomic-status families perform worse over time academically, from pre-K through career, than those who are white, Asian American or are from higher socio-economic levels. And what’s worse, high-achieving children from poor families have lower odds of success than lower-achieving children from wealthier backgrounds.

All of this comes down to a students’ ability to complete their college degree, a huge investment in cost for families and students. And first-generation college students, or students whose parents have not earned a four-year degree, are more likely to struggle to do so.

A large body of research shows that students whose parents did not attend college often face challenges in not only accessing postsecondary education, but also in succeeding academically once they enroll and completing their degree. This is due to a variety of reasons, including missing some of the cultural capital that helps students navigate college, from study skills to understanding office hours. In addition, first-generation students often face unique challenges intersecting with their race and socio-economic status that contribute to a risk of not completing school.

“For first-generation students especially, the most important part about college — and their future success — is finishing college,” says Mo Hyman, executive director of College Access Plan. “Once they start, they’ve got to finish.”

Both the Hope Center survey and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis make policy recommendations for institutions and government to take steps to improve outcomes for students who need support. Goldrick-Rab and Hyman both say schools need to do a better job supporting first-generation and low-income students.

“Families and students have to seek out resources themselves, because we haven’t truly leveled that playing field,” Hyman says. “And those resources are not easy to find, especially if parents work multiple jobs and don’t have a lot of availability or opportunity. We have to be better at helping parents to understand. Instead we blame families who don’t find resources that aren’t readily available.”

“It’s very important that the onus is not solely on families. Colleges must do this work,” says Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They must realize that students don’t just come to college, families come to college. How do we orient an entire family on what it means to be, for example, a Bulldog? This needs to be both academically and socially.”

Many institutions have made progress, but aren’t where they need to be, according to Jack. In the meantime, while students and families wait and see if institutional changes will happen, the best thing they can do is be prepared.

“Look closely at this data,” Hyman says. “That is the thing parents can do for their students — understand the challenges, and help support them through that degree.”

Here are some things that student and families can keep in mind to prepare for the real cost of college.

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Consider affordable options.

Most families and students are thinking about affordability when applying to colleges. In fact, 67 percent of families consider the price of a school when making a decision, according to the 2016 Sallie Mae study, “How America Pays for College.”

“The reality is that modest loans can be fine, but don’t take out a ridiculous amount of money to go to college,” Hyman says. “Your student can get a good education without creating a horrible financial burden on the family.”

The most expensive school isn’t always the best fit for a student in terms of interest or finances. There are affordable options for schools, and there is money available with a little planning and research.

“I think every parent needs to know that sending your child to a school that you can’t afford as a family doesn’t make you a good parent. And not doing that doesn’t make you a bad parent,” Goldrick-Rab says. “College is supposed to lift you out of poverty, not create more poverty.”

Fill of the FAFSA every year, and understand what it covers.

Each year, the Department of Education awards about $150 billion dollars of financial aid to 15 million students in the form of grants, loans and work-study. But in order to receive funds, parents and guardians must apply for it. A great place to start is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is a financial aid application run by the Department of Education. The application is open to high school seniors from Oct. 1 until June 30.

But it’s not just a one and done form to fill out. “Students and families have to remember to refile the FAFSA every year, no matter what, even if the student is at same school. Every year at the same time,” Goldrick-Rab says.

In additional to filling out the FAFSA, students and families need to understand what it covers, and more importantly, what it doesn’t cover.

“Financial aid does not go that far. Financial aid covers — if you’re really lucky, maybe half of your costs. The average net price [for public four-year institutions] after all grants is about $15,000 a year. That can hurt a family in a pretty big way,” Goldrick-Rab says.

“It’s important for a student, if they have any questions about financial aid process, to go and ask,” Jack says. “Not just about the numbers, but to fully understand what it covers. For example, it doesn’t include insurance. This can usually be accessed as part of the school’s student health plan. But a lot of students don’t know how much insurance a school does and does not cover.”

Look at SNAP and other public benefits.

Despite qualifying for government aid, many students do not receive it. GAO's analysis of Department of Education data shows that almost 2 million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) did not report receiving benefits in 2016.

The Hope Center survey found that many of the students who experience basic needs insecurity do not access public assistance. Only about 20 percent of food insecure students receive SNAP. Likewise, only 7 percent of students who experience homelessness receive housing assistance. Nine percent of students who experience homelessness utilized transportation assistance.

“Students really need to understand that while they do FAFSA, that’s not the only source of government help they should go get. Families and students also need to look at the full range of public benefits to see what they might be qualified for,” Goldrick-Rab says.

Utilize food pantries on campus.

As of September 2018, over 650 colleges reported having a food pantry on campus that provides free food to college students in need.

“Normalize the idea that a student should proactively look for a food pantry. A stereotypical version of students in college doesn’t include them doing that, but it’s certainly real for many students,” Goldrick-Rab says.

Students can start with the dean of students or a general student resource center.

Find scholarships.

Scholarships, unlike loans, don’t have to be paid back. Some are easy to apply for, while others take a lot of work. But students can start searching and applying to scholarships well before they enter school and can continue even while they are on campus.

Students should check with advisors in the financial aid office of the schools they’re applying to or have been accepted to. Most schools have scholarship opportunities listed on their website along with search tips, external links and FAQs.

Look at emergency funds.

“Students should always know where the emergency programs are when things fall short. They need to know the first week of college. Usually the dean of students or someone like that can point students towards emergency aid,” Goldrick-Rab says.

Many schools have a specific fund or program that is set aside for financial emergencies that students may face. This can be anything from unanticipated costs of supplies for a class to a student’s car breaking down and not having the funds to fix it and be able to get to class. These funds range from grants to loans to vouchers. Most schools will use a case-by-case approach to determine what is considered an emergency, and students should make sure to reach out to the financial aid office or a student dean if they find themselves in an emergency situation.

There are also other programs outside of schools that will offer similar aid, so students and families can research additional programs in the city or state where the student is attending school.

Befriend a librarian on campus.

Libraries provide a lot more to students than just a place to study. There will often be course reserves for students to rent books instead of buying them for classes, equipment for checkout, such as camera and laptops, group study spaces, research guides, printing, and technology services. Librarians are also an extremely helpful resources on campus — especially for first generation students.

“This will sound corny — set up a meeting with the librarian when you get to school,” Jack says. “That is one of the most valuable people who you can meet for a number of different reasons. Librarians know where all free resources are for students, and many libraries have support services through the library.”

Librarians possess a wealth of knowledge, and they’re professionals at finding resources and information on anything from general questions to research projects.

“I’m a big fan of the librarians. Librarians are people who know how to find resources,” Goldrick-Rab says. “The number of advisors available per student is so small, there are usually like 500 students per advisor. That’s incredibly hard. It’s good to have a different person who you can talk to on campus who knows where stuff is. And a librarian is that person.”

This post originally appeared on NBC News’ Parent Toolkit, which is supported by Pearson.

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