Most discussions of college prices and of students’ and families’ ability to pay those prices focus exclusively on tuition and fees. This focus sometimes leads to policy recommendations that aim to eliminate tuition and fees without providing additional resources for students from low-income households to buy books and supplies and cover their living expenses while they are in school. Making tuition and fees free does not prevent students from borrowing at high rates. This brief provides background for discussions of how public policy can support students who, unable to work full time for pay, must cover food, housing, child care, transportation, and other costs in addition to tuition, fees, books, and other supplies.
The variation in living expense budgets at different types of institutions and in different locations has implications for financial aid policies. One policy approach to investigate is adding a basic living allowance to tuition and fees that serves as the baseline for what grant aid should cover for the lowest-income students. Other possible approaches to ease students’ financial burden are to significantly increase Pell grants—or other grant aid that can be used for nontuition expenses—and to connect more students to federal and state income support programs for which they are eligible.