LibraryArticles of Interest

James Yang

By Rochelle Sharpe, for the New York Times

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Location. Location. Location. That adage about real estate pricing takes on new meaning — and some bewildering logic — in the hands of college administrators.

In setting allowances for off-campus living, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn decided that about $18,500 should cover it. Two blocks away, St. Joseph’s College determined that $10,000 would suffice.

SUNY College at Old Westbury and Long Island University’s Post campus in Brookville, N.Y., may be in similarly affluent locales just five miles apart, but look at the chasm between their budgets for students living off-campus: The State University of New York computed that its students needed $11,300 last year, while L.I.U.’s needed $27,500.

This is not just a New York state of mind. Estimating expenses is a murky business across the country, made even more so when “miscellaneous expenses” — for anything from health insurance to laundry — are added to the equation.

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and neighboring Drexel University calculated off-campus costs that vary by $3,000. And Johnson & Wales gives students at its campuses in North Miami, Denver, Providence, R.I., and Charlotte, N.C., the exact same allowance: $8,609, though these cities have disparate living costs.

Nearly 60 percent of colleges significantly underestimate or overestimate off-campus living costs, according to continuing research by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab (for Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education), which studies barriers to college access and completion.

Inaccurate statistics matter.

Consumer-friendly shopping tools like the government’s College Scorecard and net price calculators will churn out misleading information, making it difficult for applicants to compare colleges. While a low projection can be a boon for colleges looking to attract more applicants by seeming more affordable, it can spell disaster for students who enroll and then discover that their living costs are higher than they can afford.

Some run out of cash and are forced to drop out, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

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