Don’t Make These Common Higher Education Mistakes

Students walk on their college campus, June 2011.

There is a strange disconnect happening in discussions about college prices. On one hand, there are stories and data illustrating how low- and moderate-income families are experiencing ever-growing living costs in the face of stagnant wages, including the rising price of college. On the other hand, there are arguments that the actual out-of-pocket price of college is quite low or even free for the lowest-income students.

The radically different presentations of college affordability reflect the ways in which language and vocabulary around higher education can lead to wildly different assumptions. Those who say that college is affordable use the word “price” to mean tuition and fees. Those who say that college is increasingly unaffordable are referring to a larger definition of price that includes room and board, transportation, and other expenses students accrue in order to complete college.

This disconnect extends to more than just language; it affects policy too. The language and underlying assumptions policymakers use to discuss important higher education policy basics can lead to very different policy outcomes for students. How one defines college affordability could mean the difference between students receiving more grant aid or needing to take on increased student loan debt in order to finance college. For students, college affordability is crucial to whether they receive a degree, as well as how long it takes them to repay debt, buy a home, and begin saving for retirement. In the simplest terms, language and policy assumptions matter.

This, however, is not the only language mistake that can lead to divergent policy outcomes. Along with the misconception surrounding price and tuition, below are some common higher education mistakes that frequently show up in conversations about college, along with tips on how to properly address them.

  1. The price of college is more than just tuition. Tuition accounts for less than half of what students pay in order to attend college at certain institutions. For in-state students attending a four-year college, tuition and fees accounted for almost 40 percent of the total student budget in 2014, which includes additional expenses such as room and board, books and supplies, and transportation. The difference is even larger at public two-year colleges, where nontuition expenses accounted for almost 70 percent of prices in the same year. Even in cases where tuition is affordable, other necessary costs can get in the way of students attempting to complete their studies. If a student cannot afford rent or child care without working long hours, affordable tuition alone does not make attaining a degree any easier.

What you should say: Discussing rising tuition is important, but it does not provide the whole picture. Policymakers and others should acknowledge that students have to pay for other important living expenses in order to attend college.

  1. College cost and price are not the same thing. Policymakers often use the terms “price” and “cost” interchangeably when talking about college. That’s incorrect. The price of college means what students pay, while the cost of college means what schools spend on educating students. These two numbers and how they have changed over time are not equal. Price has gone up, while, in most cases, cost has not.

Many discussions regarding the rising price of college assume it is going up because the cost of educating students is rising. As that narrative goes, the price that students must pay increases because schools are spending too much on administration and amenities and, as a result, passing it on to students. In reality, the percentage of money spent on student services, including administration and amenities, has remained relatively stable. In all but the most elite research universities, overall education costs have been largely stagnant. That is to say, colleges are not engaging in the uncontrolled spending policymakers and others would imply.

As the Center for American Progress and other organizations have documented, college prices are going up because state support and spending on higher education are going down. Since the recession, colleges in all 50 states have seen a decrease in the share of revenue coming from state governments. These lost state dollars were subsidizing the price that students paid, which is why 47 states have seen an increase in the share of revenue coming from tuition dollars.

What you should say: Are you discussing what a family or student pays in order to attend a higher education institution? Call it the price. Are you talking about an institution’s expenses that stem from providing an education? Call it the cost.

  1. College students are not kids. Today, 4 out every 10 students enrolled in colleges and universities are older than age 25. In community colleges, it’s closer to 50 percent. Thinking about college students exclusively as young adults coming straight from high school ignores the realities that many of today’s undergraduate students face as working adults. Students’ ages have very different implications for the schools and programs they choose, their motivations, and the challenges they must overcome. For example, older students are more likely to work full time and to juggle multiple roles, including worker, spouse, and parent. Thinking of policy solutions exclusively for kids who attend college right out of high school and live in dormitories on campus misconstrues the identity of today’s students.  

What you should say: Call them students, not kids. 

  1. Loans represent financing help, not aid. When people discuss student aid, they are often referring to grants and loans. But these products are not the same. Grants are considered aid for students because they do not have to be repaid. A loan—even with generous terms—is still a debt that a student has to repay. Loans are a benefit—but in the form of financing assistance. Too frequently, policymakers talk about “aid” as an overarching term that includes both grants and loans. Referring to loans as aid can mislead students about what the term really means. As a result, they may not have a clear understanding of what they owe when they finish college.

The U.S. government does not make this mistake in other realms of financing. When the government provides foreign aid to other countries; public aid or assistance through safety net programs; or disaster relief aid in times of crisis, the term aid indicates money used to help meet a need—not dollars that must be repaid. If the context were the same when discussing college financing, financial aid would be used to refer to grant aid that does not need to be repaid. For students who receive a financial aid package from schools, “financial aid” could mean need-based grant aid, merit aid, scholarships, or student loans. Keep in mind that most financial aid awards can include grants and loans issued by states, the federal government, private sources, and even schools themselves. Schools and the federal government need to be more specific as to what variety of financing they are offering.

What you should say: Students and families as consumers have too much information to sort through with little transparency. Let’s drop blanket statements and instead accurately call each form of financing what it really is.

It’s no secret that the American public needs better information when it comes to college. Better information on costs, options, financing, and quality is necessary in order to help students overcome the challenges they face. In larger policy debates and media representations, if the words and their implications are not specific and intentional, the discussion only adds to the problem. So let’s be clear: It is important to get the vocabulary and underlying assumptions correct if we are truly committed to addressing the big issues facing today’s students.

Antoinette Flores is a Policy Analyst on the Postsecondary Education team at the Center for American Progress.