What are the costs of attending college?

The college financing debate has a lot of weird quirks in it. One of those weird quirks is what gets spoken of as the costs of attending college. Consider the following three costs:

  1. Opportunity costs (i.e. foregone income in the years you are studying).
  2. Direct costs of college itself (i.e. tuition, books, fees, etc.).
  3. Living expenses.

Number (1) is a cost of attending college because it represents the amount of earnings you give up to attend. Number (2) is also a cost of attending college because it is literally what you shell out to buy the instruction, books, and so on.

Number (3), however, is not a cost of attending college. This is because you will have living expenses whether you attend college or not. Those who do not matriculate into college also have expenses for rent, food, transportation, and so on. It’s not going to college that makes you need money for room and board: it’s simply existing that does.

A public benefits regime aimed at offsetting the personal costs of college would target (1) and (2). Yet advocates of such regimes actually target (2) and (3). This seems to be a more successful public relations strategy, but it also puts them in the weird situation where they are saying public benefits should cover the rent and food of the (relatively better off) kids who go to college but not the rent and food of the (relatively worse off) kids who don’t.