Quick note on student living expenses

One of the weird things people emphasize when tuition subsidies and the like are brought up is that such things don’t even cover the full “cost” of attending. This is because, they explain, students’ housing and food and other miscellaneous expenses cost a good deal of money and tuition subsidies don’t reach those things. The upshot, as best as I can tell, is that the proper thing is to both cover all of the tuition and living expenses.

But this is problematic.

For starters, to say college students have the additional cost of living expenses is not technically correct. If they weren’t in college, they’d have living expenses just the same. They’d need housing and food just the same. Going to college doesn’t actually incur any additional costs with regards to living expenses. It does with regards to tuition, but not with regards to living expenses.

This is a technical point, but it gets at a more serious point. Covering the living expenses of college students while not covering the living expenses of similarly situated non-college-students seems to be unfair. Why should a 20-year-old college student be relieved of living expenses while a 20-year-old non-college-student who is working (a likely low-paying job) is not? What could possibly justify such asymmetric treatment?

There is a decent case to make for covering the living expenses of young adults. Their incomes are low, their unemployment rates are high, and they have scarce savings. You could imagine, then, a program of age-based cash grants or other benefits that could be used to pay for housing and food and other living expenses. Making such grants contingent on whether you spend your day in class or spend your day working, however, is hard to justify.