education finance

The Hidden Costs of College Can Take Students by Surprise

By Andrew Smalley | Aug. 20, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

A typical college student today is far less likely than those in the past to be a recent high school graduate who’s attending full time with financial support from her parents. According to data from the Lumina Foundation, 37% of students are 25 years old or older and 40% work full time while in school. These students are more likely to have additional costs like rent or transportation that may not be covered by financial aid. Such expenses are rarely clearly communicated by institutions. A recent study found that 39% of colleges have no information about indirect costs on their websites.


These costs can force students to delay their education or, in some cases, drop out. And the financial pressures are increasing as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Many students who were working to pay their school costs have lost their jobs. With a loss of income, students face a handful of common challenges described below.


Research suggests that approximately 30% of college students experience food insecurity while in school. More than 300 colleges and universities have opened on-campus food pantries, and some students, including those in federal work-study programs, may be eligible for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. There have been several proposals to expand SNAP eligibility to more college students.

In 2019, New Jersey lawmakers passed the Hunger-Free Campus Act, which offers grants to universities to develop hunger programs, such as Hunger-Free Campuses. And in California, legislators passed SB 173, which requires institutions and agencies to provide a standardized application form and verification process for students to receive SNAP benefits.

Housing and Homelessness

According to a 2019 survey, 48% of students at four-year institutions and 60% of two-year students experience housing insecurity while in school. Some institutions offer housing vouchers or allow students to sleep in parking lots overnight. And some students, particularly those over age 24 or with children, might qualify for some federal housing programs.

In 2019, Tennessee passed SB 763, which requires higher education institutions to dedicate a staff member to serve as a homeless student liaison and develop plans to provide year-round housing options for homeless students. Nevada and Louisiana have passed similar legislation.

Child Care

More than 1 in 5 undergrads—or nearly 4 million students in 2016—are parents while enrolled in school. Finding affordable child care on a college campus is often a major challenge for student-parents. Only about half of college campuses offer child care facilities, and in 30 states the cost of care exceeds in-state tuition. The federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program funds child care for approximately 13,000 student-parents. However, more than 1.8 million student-parents could qualify for the program if additional funding were available.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education administers the Postsecondary Child Care Grant Program, which is funded by annual appropriations. The program was allocated $6 million in fiscal year 2017 and served 1,693 students with grants of up to $3,000 per child per year. In 2019, the Washington Legislature passed HB 1303, which removed work requirements from its child care program for college students, and California passed AB 809, which requires institutions to notify parents and pregnant students about campus resources and protections under Title IX.


A growing number of students no longer live on campus and face rising transportation costs to commute to school. Research from the Institute for College Access and Success found that the average college student spends $1,760 a year on transportation costs. A 2017 study among New York students found that transportation costs were among the main reasons students dropped out.

In 2019, California lawmakers considered but did not pass AB 532, which would have required discounted parking permits for students.

With the economy declining and state education budgets hurting, these problems will be difficult to tackle. But legislators will find ways to alleviate at least some of the pressures so that students aren’t forced to choose between fulfilling their future educational dreams and filling their hungry bellies.

Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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