Misreporting of Off-Campus Housing Costs Widespread

By Nicholas Dias

Presidential candidates have been pumping the ether full of talk about college inaccessibility and plans to ameliorate those circumstances.

As most high school seniors with college aspirations would tell you, such talk has basis. 

The College Board reports that, between 2004 and 2014, annual costs at public and private four-year colleges increased by 32.3 and 22.7 percent, respectively. The average cost of a college education is now around $70,000 or $170,000, depending on which path one takes at the public-private fork in the road. 

The result? Students have amassed $1.2 trillion in outstanding debt. Among student loan holders 17 percent are behind on their payments, and another 14 percent are in default.

Yet, Hillary Clinton and Dr. Ben Carson alike continue to neglect a critical, tractable factor impeding young people from receiving a bachelor’s degree: elusive, faulty college cost information.

Research from Stanford has shown that high-achieving, low-income students shy away from top-tier, aid-heavy colleges because they simply do not know what attendance would actually cost them.

Responding to similar studies, the federal government has required colleges to develop and publish “net price calculators” enabling prospective students to illuminate the costs entailed in attendance. Policy advocates, however, have criticized that these calculators are too unwieldy to be useful.

To compound matters, a recent study from Trulia found that even when colleges do disclose costs, this information can be highly inaccurate. 

Trulia’s study examined differences between the reported off-campus housing costs of 20 colleges and the median prices of Trulia rental listings in those colleges’ communities. UC Berkeley, for instance, was found to have underestimated off-campus housing costs by 42 percent—over $5,000. The University of Texas, Austin was found to overestimate costs by 59 percent. (Of course, there are a few caveats about this study, which were well-reviewed by Anna Marie Erwert at SFGate.)

Inaccuracy in any reported college expenses harms in several ways. Overestimation deters some prospective students with ostensibly prohibitive costs. Underestimation is equally problematic, lulling students into a false sense of security and leading them to drop out or be smothered by debt.

Misreports of housing expenses, however, are particularly dangerous considering such costs potentially aggregate tens of thousands of dollars a year. 

But just how widespread is inaccuracy in reported off-campus housing costs? Data from the Department of Education and Rent Jungle offer an idea.

Click here to view an interactive visualization of the data.

Figure 1 of the visualization juxtaposes each college’s reported off-campus housing costs with rent averages of one- and two-bedroom apartments within a ten-mile radius. Columns are split by the apartments’ number of bedrooms and inhabitants. Red text marks colleges that did not report off-campus housing costs between 2011 and 2014.

Figure 2 visualizes differences between reported off-campus housing costs and calculated costs.

Finally, Figure 3 charts the average inaccuracy of each college’s reported off-campus housing costs, which is simply the average of absolute values of the differences in Figure 2. Bars are shaded according to college communities’ monthly rent prices.

All data are from 2013-14, with the exception of Occidental (2011-12) and Vanderbilt (2012-13). Rent averages were calculated by finding the average monthly rent from the time period and multiplying the result by nine. (Note: The academic year for trimester schools is typically eight months long. Thus, total rent expenses for students of such schools might be slightly smaller.)

Nicholas Dias
graduated from the University of California-Davis with majors in psychology and communication and a minor in professional writing. UC Davis is home to the Kappa of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.