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Understanding the Cost of College: College Student Expenses

December 21, 2017

The cost of college is much more than tuition. College student expenses include room and board, textbooks, and much more. Here's how to figure out what you'll pay in expenses for college. 


In an education system where graduates have incurred thousands of dollars’ worth of student loan debt, it is important to understand the ever-increasing cost of college. While tuition may be the most obvious cost of post secondary education expenses, it is unfortunately not the only financial obstacle to getting a degree.


According to The Century Foundation, up to 80 percent of the sticker price of a community college comes from non-tuition expenses, and around 61 percent of the cost of a four-year public university degree comes from non-tuition expenses. Housing, college textbooks, utilities, and food are all examples of additional expenses that a college student must be prepared to cover, though there are many more depending on the student.


According to Time, about 60 percent of students plan on buying a new computer while pursuing their degree, which can easily cost hundreds of dollars. For example, for the 2010-11 school year, the average off-campus college student living on his or her own paid $756.24 in monthly room and board. Fast-forward to the 2015-16 school year, and the figure jumps to $943.29, an increase of nearly 25 percent.


In order to fully understand the net amount of non-tuition expenses, we will take a look at the previous six years’ worth of data available at The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and break down expenses by year, geography, and whether a college or university is public or private. Then, IPEDS breaks up these expenses into three broad categories: room and board, textbooks, and other (intended as a catch-all for many of the expenses addressed above). Given the lack of data available for on-campus room and board costs, we will focus primarily on off-campus room and board costs.


The following is a breakdown of the types of non-tuition expenses for the 2015-16 school year for college students living off-campus (i.e., not at home):

non-tuition expense types

Room and board make up the vast majority of the non-tuition college costs, at just more than $11,000 per year. College textbooks are the smallest expense, at about $1,600 per year. Other college expenses, such as the computer mentioned above, comprise about $5,300 dollars per year. It is worth noting that eliminating college room and board expenses represent substantial savings if the student is in a position to live with parents, though that is obviously not the case for everyone.


With this definition of college expenses in mind, we can look at total non-tuition expenses by state. Note that the states are split into two graphs for the sake of readability, and we will be using off-campus room and board expenses data for all the following charts:

non-tuition expenses by state non-tuition expenses by state

As we can see in the bar charts, there does appear to be some variation in non-tuition post secondary education expenses by state. However, looking at a count of schools by state that are reporting the necessary data, there is only one college apiece from Arkansas and Wyoming that are complying. Contrast this with the fact that 224 schools from Texas and 164 from California are reporting the necessary data. So while states could theoretically be a useful axis of analysis into costs, a lack of data will preclude us from using that data.


Which other variables might heavily impact the cost of college, outside of tuition? I suspect that local city size will have more impact on expenses than the actual state, as it stands to reason that many states will have both expensive and cheap places to live. So, let’s examine degree of urbanization according to IPEDS. Definitions of degree of urbanization, IPEDS proxy for city size, can be found on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) website:

non-tuition expenses by urbanization

Here we appear to see a bias toward more populated areas having slightly higher expenses. For example, a student in a large city in any given state will have an average yearly expense amount of nearly $19,400, whereas that value shrinks to a little under $17,900 in a small city, and all the way down to about $14,500 dollars in rural areas. This would lead one to believe there is some correlation between city size and expenses. Furthermore, it is interesting to note the massive difference in the range of prices paid in the large cities and suburbs, which makes sense given the variety of housing options and affluence of neighborhoods. The final individual variable we will look at is school status.

non-tuition expenses by school status

It appears that public schools generally have lower living expenses than private schools. Using our two variables that appear to have some correlation with expenses, we can run a regression to try and predict the next four years of expenses. In order to test model accuracy, a control group of data will need to be established. Since we are attempting to predict four years’ worth of expenses, it makes sense to have a control group of four years, from the 2012-13 school year to the 2015-16 school year. In order to ensure that we have enough data to generate an accurate model, we will use the previous 12 years of expense data from IPEDS. We will generate a model based on the first eight years of data, from the 2004-05 school year to the 2011-12 school year, to predict the next four years of data, which we can compare to the actual results of the previous four years of data. The resulting regression was able to predict expenses that were on average within 7.1 percent of actual expenses for students over the four-year span, making it a strong model.


Results of the regression for the next four years can be explored below. Note that due to data scarcity, the model will not work when Private Nonprofit and one of Medium City, Town, or Rural is selected.

expenses calculator

Ultimately, budgeting for college is an arduous task with a lot of moving parts. Students and parents will need to take into account whether or not a student is living at home, does that student need a computer, and so on. It is simply the hope that the expense calculator can provide some insight and help put forth as detailed expense planning as possible.


Daniel Massop graduated from Tulane University with a degree in Mathematics, and is currently studying Software Engineering at Penn State. Upon graduation, he plans to pursue a PhD in Machine Learning. He is a passionate data scientist who plans on working in the field his entire life. He took an interest in big data in the midst of the Moneyball craze in professional baseball and is currently developing an NBA data science website.