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UNC consistently overestimates average cost of attendance

Old Well

When the University announced the decreased average cost of attendance, students sought transparency about the process by which the University determines this number, unsure of how the changes might affect their financial aid package.

The University must strike a balance when projecting this estimated cost, said Eric Johnson, assistant director of policy and communications for The Office of Scholarships and Student Aid. If the University overshoots the cost, students might take out more loans than necessary, increasing their student debt. If the University underestimates the cost, students may not receive sufficient aid to finance their attendance. Johnson said UNC has consistently overestimated the cost of attendance.

At UNC, the average cost of attendance is $23,734 and $50,634 for in-state and out-of-state students, respectively. In addition to the set cost of tuition and fees, the estimate for food considers the price of the unlimited meal plan, and the housing costs are matched to the most common on-campus option. Both of these tend to be overestimates, Johnson said. 

For textbooks, the University takes a sampling of the reported costs from students across departments. Miscellaneous and personal costs are calculated by checking the price of common items, such as toothpaste and laundry detergent, across a nine-month budget. Currently, the office conducts a survey of indirect expenses every three years and adjusts for inflation each year.

Travel costs are estimated around 10 miles per day for in-state students, and four flights per year at the nationwide average of a domestic flight to and from Raleigh-Durham International Airport for out-of-state students. 

In February, the University removed student health insurance from the cost of attendance. As a result, the University can focus those resources on the students who need extra help, rather than provide insurance to thousands of students already covered, Johnson said.  

UNC remains the cheapest for in-state students compared to North Carolina State University and University of Virginia, schools of similar proximity or rank.  

NC State also ended automatic inclusion of health insurance in 2015. NC State has an estimated cost of $23,976 for in-state students and $43,522 for out-of-state. Aside from the tuition and fees, NC State surveys students and uses the Consumer Price Index to determine these costs, said Krista Ringler, director of NC State’s Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid.

At UVA, the in-state and out-of-state costs of attendance are $32,432 and $62,356 to $64,156, respectively, for first through third years in the College of Arts and Sciences. UVA uses a method similar to UNC's for estimating this cost, but UVA uses a weighted average of housing options to determine the average housing cost. In addition, UVA divides the countries into zones, from which they determine the costs of travel at the major airports in that area for two round trips for out-of-state students. 

UVA, like UNC, is committed to meeting 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need. 

The Office of Scholarships and Student Aid is continuously working to make their estimate more accurate, and they encourage students to contact them if they need additional resources.

“Our goal is always to set a cost that reflects true needs without misdirecting resources to students who may not need that much funding to remain enrolled,” Johnson said. “There is no perfect number, but we do our best to make sure no student has to leave Carolina for financial reasons.”

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