The Hidden Hurdles of Indirect College Expenses

Episode #13. Host Jonathan Hughes breaks down uAspire’s recently published Beyond the College Bill report with uAspire’s Massachusetts Policy Director Anika Van Easton and Senior Vice President of Knowledge Holly Morrow. The report discusses the hidden hurdles of indirect expenses. Jonathan also answers listener’s questions about negotiating merit aid and using a student loan to study abroad. He’s joined by MEFA's Director of College Planning Julie Shields-Rutyna, who shares information about an upcoming event that will offer free help to families with completing the FAFSA. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.


Jonathan: Welcome to the MEFA podcast. My name is Jonathan Hughes. And today we're going to be joining by Anika Van Easton and Holly Morrow from uAspire, a nonprofit organization ensuring that all young people have the financial information and resources necessary to find an affordable path to, and through, college.
And they're going to be talking to us about a new publication that they just put out, um, called Beyond the College Bill. And that's something that you're going to want to hear about. Uh, but they've been collaborators and friends of ours for a long time. So it was great to talk to them. But before we get into that, we do have something important to discuss, right?
Julie: We do. We do. So should we talk about FAFSA completion? Let's talk about it. All right. So, well, you know, I think, I think we all know that the pandemic has created a number of financial and social hardships for our Massachusetts families. Uh, there's been lost employment, isolated from loved ones, and students particularly have had a disrupted academic year this year.
So now that we're starting to get back to what I could call somewhat normal. Um, MEFA has joined with a number of other organizations in Massachusetts to promote a campaign called Worth It, which is urging high school seniors and parents to apply for college financial aid as an important step in realizing their college dream.
So this is going to be a statewide campaign. And one example of one of the events that MEFA is hosting is going to be a free online workshop. That's going to be on April 24th and it's a drop-in event. So families can come and drop in online at any time. And we will have breakout rooms and experts to help them.
And the key will be to help them complete the FAFSA, which is just a very big step in applying for financial aid and receiving money for college. So we just want as many people as possible to know about this, um, either for themselves or others who haven't, if students just haven't made a plan yet for the fall.
Additionally, we also are hosting a webinar on April 29th, which is going to be a panel of higher education experts in Massachusetts talking about all of the colleges and programs that still have availability for students this fall. Uh, so students, it is not too late is the point here. And I guess I'll end with saying and you're worth it.
Jonathan: So I'm joined in on these events and, um, and we'll be happy to see you and help. And so when is that, um, drop an event that people can, uh, can drop in and get, um, sort of virtual appointments and helps filing their FAFSA? When is that?
Julie: Yes. So that is Saturday, April 24th, nine to five. And if a family just goes to, they’ll be able to sign up register and then join the, basically a zoom meeting on that day at any point and whatever point you join, we'll pair you up with an expert to help you complete your FAFSA.
Jonathan: I'll be there.
Julie: Me too
Jonathan: So, okay. So we'll be there to help you out. Okay. Well, as Julie said, we can put links in the, in the notes to the show. So you can go ahead and check out that, um, information posted below our episode. We certainly hope people will take advantage of that. And now we move on to the MEFA mailbag.
So these are questions that have come in from customers over the past two weeks and answered by our college guidance experts. If you have any questions, please remember, you can reach out to us at college Of course, you can also reach us on, on social media, on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn.
Uh, our, our Twitter handle is, uh, @ mefatweets. Um, our first question comes to us from Debra and she writes good afternoon. I would like to know what's the best way to try and negotiate a merit scholarship. It’s a hot topic. Um, my daughter has been accepted at four colleges and received four year scholarships from three of the four colleges.
Our first choice is fortunately one of the three, which is great. Cause I didn't think that was going to be the case, but her first choice is one of the three, but it is offering significantly less than the other two. So is it worth trying to negotiate an increase in merit scholarship based on the other colleges?
If so, Is it recommended to send the other acceptance letters as proof of the financial contributions that the other colleges are offering. So we had, um, a panel on just this topic. So why don't you take it away again, too?
Julie: Sure. Yeah. So we had a panel and a webinar all about Financial aid appeals, many of which are due to finances and that's a whole family should always appeal to the college if there's a change in their financial circumstances.
But yeah. What, what do you do when it's based on merit or the fact that you receiving more scholarship grant dollars from the other colleges? Well, I would say you should always, I would always encourage a family to appeal if you, if you want to. Um, I would say perhaps not think of it as negotiation, uh, because I think the colleges don't think of it that way, so maybe stay away from that word.
But I think it is always good to have an honest conversation with a college. So to that first choice college, you can email them. Probably the best way email or call them or follow their appeals process, which you will find on, on their website and just tell them exactly what the story is. This is my, uh, students first choice, but we received more aid from these other colleges.
Is there anything that you can do? To increase this, uh, grant or scholarship for us, that would be very helpful financially and help us make that decision, um, and leave it at that. So, yes, ask, but number two, just understand that. I'm not sure what your answer will be. Some colleges are able to do that and able to make some adjustments.
And if they know it's first choice and a little bit more money could actually really influence the decision, they might be able to give additional money. Um, but other colleges might say, I'm so sorry. We gave the, you know, the most merit that we can give. Um, and we did that on the first round. And I that's, that's all we can do.
So just go into it with that expectation that you're not sure what the answer will be, but for sure, ask. Yeah. And, um, you know, if you have any other opinions questions, you might want to check out that webinar that's recorded. It always draws a lot of people. Um, and so this year was no exception. I think we had over 500 attendees of that webinar.
Jonathan: We can post it again in the links under the shutout. So, um, our second question comes to us from Gary and he has a question about loans. He writes. Hi, I might need to obtain a loan to fund my son's college costs in Massachusetts. I have a couple of questions about your loan program. Would I be able to borrow a cost to pay takes a summer semester abroad while attending his college, which is Northeastern, are there any early payment penalties in case I wanted to pay off the loan earlier than the loan term specifies?
Um, so I'll take those one. Um, This is the time of course, when people are going to start looking at loans and trying to figure out their financing for the upcoming year. You can borrow, uh, a loan for, um, a summer semester or a semester abroad, but there has to be, um, one key criteria that's met. And that it's, we can only send the funds directly to the college or university, and we can only do that for a college and or university in the United States, uh, at which a student is enrolled at least half time in a degree granting program. So if we're able to pay in this case, Northeastern, uh, for this, uh, students expenses for their summer abroad semester, and the college will certify that as they will formally accept the money for those purposes.
And then, you know, they can give the funds to the student for his or her expenses. That's fine. We can do that. Um, for the second question that you have, are there any early payment penalties in case you want to pay the loan off early? Like absolutely not. So you can always pay off loans early.
It's like a good thing to do if you can do it because the longer that you have a loan, there's going to be interest accruing on it. There's interest accruing on, on the loan every day. So if you can pay that loan off earlier, it means that you're going to be paying less over the long run. And there's absolutely no penalty for doing that for the meaningful loan.
Um, and it's also the case with federal student loans that there's no early pre-payment penalty. So just something to know there. Now remember if you have any questions like these, you can reach us once again, at But now let's go to my discussion with Anika Van Easton and Holly Morrow from uAspire.
Well, welcome to the MEFA podcast and our discussion with Anika Van Eaton and Holly Morrow from uAspire. Anika is the Policy Director for Massachusetts. And in this role, she leads the strategy and delivery of uAspire Massachusetts data based policy agenda and systems change projects. Holly Morrow is the Senior Vice President of Knowledge. Over her 17 plus years at uAspire she's held various program leadership roles, in addition to serving as a College Affordability Advisor. Currently Holly oversees the creation and maintenance of uAspires broad suite of college affordability training content tools and expertise. And it's a great pleasure to have both of you here today to talk about uAspires new publication Beyond the College Bill.
I can't wait to get into, but before we do that, um, Holly, I was wondering if you could tell the folks at home about uAspire, who uAspire is, and what you guys do.
Holly Morrow: Sure. Thanks, Jonathan. Uh, so uAspire is a national non-profit organization and we hyper-focus on the issues of college affordability. We realize that there are many parts to the college access process, but we really just hone in on that affordability piece.
And we do this work by engaging in three different impact models. Um, first and foremost, we work directly with students and families throughout their financial aid process. Um, so both helping them through their senior year of high school and then supporting them, um, through their college years as they persist towards that college degree.
We also, um, do this work through our training work in which we train other frontline practitioners who are helping students and families navigate this process as well. So school counselors and other college access and success folks. And then the last piece of our, of our impact models is our policy work.
Um, and this is a growing area of our work. It's what brings us all here today together. Um, and we're really advocating for the changes that are necessary and doing the field work that are supporting our policy agenda. On the name of increasing college affordability. Um, so more students can make it to and through with an affordable amount of debt.
Jonathan Hughes: So it's great to hear, to have you on to tell folks everything that you do now, when we're talking about, um, today is your new report, Beyond the College Bill. And a few years ago, uAspire put out a report, um, on terminology, uh, different terminologies for the same things and the confusion that it causes from, um, financial aid office to financial aid office.
And it was a great, great publication. And it was a real eye-opener for a lot of people. In and out of the industry. So very excited to know that you have produced and other fantastic reports. So before we get into that, can you tell me, um, Anika what, what prompted this report?
Anika Van Eaton: Sure, absolutely. Jonathan, so for Beyond the College Bill, our work with students first and foremost drives the research.
So the students we work with are meeting with uAspire advisors, as they try and figure out and navigate the FAFSA and those processes, but also how to pay for transportation. Off-campus housing, food, outside the meal plan folks, in course, materials, personal expenses, um, all of these topics come up.
When they're meeting with their advisors and communicating with them. And then the work that you referenced, our work with financial aid offers via decoding, the cost of college, that research, we were reviewing thousands of these financial aid communications from colleges to students. And we also started noticing discrepancies.
Um, confusing parts about how they communicated these indirect expenses. And so between the work we're seeing with students and what we're viewing as we were spending time with these financial aid offers, um, that proved to be the foundation for, for this next report that you're referencing.
Jonathan Hughes: And we talk about the study for a moment, um, who actually participated in this study. How was this done?
Anika Van Eaton: Sure. Absolutely. So this was, uh, we're gonna, we're going to talk about some data sources, Jonathan. We had, um, qualitative and quantitative data from mostly from the five states where we advise and where we train practitioners. So that's, you know, our state here in Massachusetts, California, New York, and then also Pennsylvania and Texas.
We had 16 focus groups, um, meeting with a diverse group of 105 students attending different institution types, different housing scenarios. They shared their experiences with indirect expenses. And then we also had a survey that included a larger group of students focused on the type of expenses, how much they're paying and how students are managing those expenses.
And additionally, we also reviewed 820 college and university websites. Looking at public and private four year and two year institutions from those five States. I mentioned, we looked at the eight offers from our database. We looked at, um, two different publicly available surveys from the national center of education statistics.
And then lastly, we interviewed financial aid administrators and higher ed professionals who are. Who are implementing some promising practices on their campuses.
Jonathan Hughes: So, and this is all about, and we've said a few times indirect expenses, so, and they've touched on a few of them, but can you just lay out for everybody?
What exactly indirect expenses are?
Holly Morrow: Sure I'll take that one, Jonathan. So I think, you know, first and foremost, it's really important to break down what the, these indirect expenses are part of and, and that the, the, the larger kind of like bucket of, of all this is the overall cost of attendance that a college, um, Has an enlist on their website and you can find that in different resources.
So when you break down the overall cost of attendance, you have both the direct costs. And essentially those are like what you're going to pay to the college. So if you're a student or a parent listening, so those direct costs are what your bill is going to be. Um, whatever financial aid doesn't cover.
Right? So think of things like the tuition and the fees and the housing and the food, right? Those are those direct costs. And, you know, up until this. Point like, you know, it is the main focus, right. But what we're realizing and what this data showed was that it's really critical to understand that other part of the cost of attendance, which are these indirect expenses.
And so these are like the other side, right? So outside of, outside of the tuition fees and the housing and the fluid, and so it could be anything from books and supplies, a computer, right. Living expenses, transportation. And that could be both transportation if you're at a community college and, you know, you're commuting back and forth on the local, you know, subway, or it could be, if you are going to a college out of state and you have to fly back and forth.
Right. So that, that transportation can vary. It can be, you know, other things like parking childcare, things like that. So, um, those are the indirect impacts. It’s different than those direct costs that you would then pay directly to the college. These indirect expenses are, are things that, you know, you're going to have to pay you pay your childcare, not to the college, but, but somewhere else, um, and transportation, somewhere else.
Jonathan Hughes: Colleges are required to list the cost of attendance on their website. So, um, you know, with something that we always point families towards when we were talking about cost of attendance, did they're required to have it on the website, but the report found something interesting. And that's, uh, the different ways in which the indirect expenses are listed. It can be confusing for students.
Can you talk about why that is?
Anika Van Eaton: Sure. Absolutely. So when we were reviewing those 820 websites that I mentioned, we found that 39% of the institutions actually didn't list their specific indirect expenses on the website. Of the remaining 61%, um, that did list something 7% of the websites had outdated information about a third had dollar amounts, but without any explanation. So if it's a confusing term, but you just put a term and an amount, you know, as a student and a family, it might be confusing about what that is or what are we expecting we're going to have to pay for here.
Um, and then 23rd did 23%. It did include a full itemized list of what these things were and what they would cost. Um, but I think some of the, some of the challenges also were in the terminology that's used. And so there are things that are really different from college to college, for terms that are confusing for students.
So for example, room and board, do I think we can get used to that within the college world? Um, but it, this is the first time you're looking at this, you know, we could also say housing and food, right. Something that's a little more clear. Um, and then there are other things around some of the financial aid offers we looked at.
Where we also looked at the institution's websites. A third of them use different terms between the aid offer and the website. So it's not tracking within the communications that folks will be looking at to try and learn about the costs of college.
Jonathan Hughes: Hmm. One thing that I found really interesting was that you found even among colleges that do list their indirect expenses that do estimate that, um, even those in the very, in the same city, very close to one, another can have very different indirect expense estimates.
So, you know, you'd have three colleges in Boston, you'd think there'd be similar. Um, but in fact, they're, they're quite different.
Holly Morrow: Yeah, sure. I can, I can jump into that. So when we were looking at the data, we realized that we really had to hone in on our comparison of indirect expenses, because we were seeing that these living expenses were varying so widely from state to state and even city to city within the States.
Um, so in the report, you can see that, um, as we dug a little bit deeper here, we started to identify some of these large discrepancies, for example, between colleges that were from three miles apart to a half a mile. Right? So they're, they're, you know, they're, they're really close to each other. So in Boston, for example, we found that there was, um, in, in this one example, a 10,000 plus the difference for off-campus indirect expenses for colleges that were less than two miles apart.
And then we also found this in New York city and Philadelphia. So we saw this happening across the different geographies that we looked at. And so what that highlighted for us is that there is this inconsistency or significant differences in calculating these estimates. Um, and that's confusing for students and families, right.
Um, you know, when families and students are, are trying to do an apples to apples, comparison as close as they possibly can to their financial aid offers from the colleges. Um, these differences are huge and, and they need to be better understood. And so, to be clear, we're not saying that any of these numbers are definitely inaccurate, right?
Um, they could very well be. Good reason why there are these differences, but from the information offered by the colleges, we're just not sure where they're coming up with these estimates, um, and that students and families, they need to be able to plan for this accordingly. And we're just not clear on, on how these differences, um, how they're coming up with these, these numbers.
Jonathan Hughes: You know, one of the things that the report does really effectively is you have testimonials from students and interviews with students and families, and they talk about, um, the difficulty that, that not having a clear picture of these indirect expenses, um, causes them throughout their education. I was wondering if you could detail to some of the ways that, that the report found that the stress impacts these students.
Anika Van Eaton: Sure. Absolutely. Um, so it's stressful, right? We found that about half of the students, we surveyed paid more for indirect expenses than they had anticipated. 88% of the students felt stress about affording indirect expenses, at least once or twice a semester. Half of them found it stressful monthly. So students are facing a lot of pressure to scrape money together for items that weren't necessarily in their budget and are impacting their day to day, basic living basic needs. Um, we found that this experience of, of stress and managing these expenses. The California student aid commission also found that 64% of students listed cost of college or balancing school and responsibilities as the greatest barrier to succeeding.
Um, the students we surveyed just in our half reported being significantly or extremely concerned about their ability to cover these indirect expenses that they needed to complete their degree. And so these are, these are barriers that can add up and turn a single indirect expense into a complete degree to glazing obstacle.
One of the, one of the things that I get to do within my role as policy director is I work with a cohort of students who are a, as a student advocacy fellows program that we have, and they are focused on indirect expenses specifically. So every semester we hire five college students and a college student peer leader, and they do a paid fellowship focused on learning about advocacy specifically related to indirect expenses.
Um, all the students are Pell eligible or have, have a DACA TPS status. And they're state-based. So the fellows I work with are here in Massachusetts. And so they share a lot of similar stories that you're referencing from the report and you referenced the, the student testimonials. And so they speak about their experiences of moving from, from high school, maybe where they had a heavily discounted or completely subsidized transit pass to having to commute to college and finding that that's a significant expense of either.
Taking the transit or, you know, if they go to a campus a little bit farther away figuring out how to get there. Um, maybe they participated in a free lunch program at their high school. And then that is not the same types of, of, you know, services and support in college. And so figuring out how to pay for food, um, while balancing their studies while balancing getting to college.
So they speak about a lot of these issues and experiences that they have as students to our policy makers, um, and recommend solutions. And so this is something that I've been really excited to work with them and where they are rooting their policy recommendations. And they're learning about advocacy and policy within the experiences that they themselves have had managing these indirect expenses on campus.
Jonathan Hughes: No, that's fantastic. And you know, it always makes me think of a story that a colleague of mine shared, uh, when she was, she was going to school and, you know, there was a, an issue about parking. And she was finding out that she couldn't park where she thought she could park and that almost ended up meaning that she wasn't going to go to school anymore and, and finish her degree.
And I, and, and it's, it's just, it's oftentimes the straw that breaks the camel's back, right? It doesn't seem like it would be a big thing, but when you're stretched already and maybe some students who don't maybe have as strong a support system as others that could really end up being, as you say, the degree, delaying a factor that, that it shouldn't be.So, and so, um, you know, it's good to hear about the advocacy and policy that, that you're, um, doing it.
UAspire, there are some solutions that you mentioned in the report, um, for, for colleges, I want to talk about that. Before, since most of the people listen to the podcast, are students or family stuff moving to solutions, what would you recommend for students or for families who are maybe just getting their financial aid offers?
Because now it's around the time that they're doing that and they're trying to estimate their costs. So what can they do to best prepare for these indirect expenses?
Holly Morrow: Sure. Thanks, Jonathan. Well, I mean, I think number one, you're, you're starting, you're listening to this podcast, right? So, um, so great job in doing that.
You're learning you're, you're, you're actively on, on the right path. Um, you know, I think that the most important thing, as you just alluded to as these financial aid offers are coming in, it's, it's really doing a very close analysis of each one and then comparing them next to each other. So that as a. Is it, the family and the, and the student can really understand what that true cost of college is going to be for them for the next year and that's everything from, okay.
What is your estimated bill going to look like after the financial aid it comes in and then that bill is, is what you're going to over to the college. And then beyond that, what are those other indirect costs? Offenses that will be associated with each college. Um, and there are many tools out there that can help you do that for free.
One of them is a uAspire college cost calculator that you can find on our website. You can plug in each college, um, and it's got some real teaching moments built in. Um, and some specifically around the concept of indirect expenses and things to consider or look into, uh, for each college.
In addition to that, um, you know, there are other things that the student can do. You can look at the college's website, um, even better. You can call the college and you can, you can speak with a financial aid representative and ask them questions that you might have. I think it's also good for students to speak with their colleagues, their high school counselors, or if you have any college access or success mentors, folks like that.
Also speak with friends and family. I think that the, you know, the story that Jonathan, you just shared about your colleague, like that's just a real life moment that the more you talk to people who have gone through this, you're going to hear more of those exact types of, of, um, situations and you'll learn.
From that. Right? So if you have friends or family or colleagues who have been, um, recent college students, pick their brain, ask them how, how they found these other, these other indirect expenses that they might not have planned for originally. What are some things that popped up for them? So, um, asking around, analyzing.
There was those eight offers. Um, as much as you possibly can checking the website, those are all awesome. Some really good, um, habits for folks who are just beginning to figure out, uh, which college they're going to attend and looking at those financial aid office.
Jonathan Hughes: It's great. And I know that the report also concludes it's, um, uh, possible solutions, both from the college standpoint. So things that colleges can implement and, uh, policy as well. And there, I don't know if you'd like to talk about those.
Anika Van Eaton: Yeah, I would love to. Thanks, Jonathan. Um, so some, some, some strategies from the school side of things, reducing textbook costs. Colleges can incentivize faculty to develop courses using open educational resources to making it.
So students are not having to pay the hefty prices for textbooks. The Maricopa community college district became the, started the Maricopa Millions Project in 2013 to create open source materials. For their highest enrollment courses. And five years later, the project had saved students over $11 million in textbook costs.
Um, colleges can collaborate with public transit agencies to offer students free or reduced ride fares. So subsidized transportation, um, you know, you had, I think, referenced earlier emergency aid, making emergency aid available for students for unexpected. Things that come up. And the Austin community college students who were the beneficiaries of these emergency funds that Austin community college had rolled out.
Um, they did an evaluation of that and found that students persisted at higher rates than students who didn't have that just-in-time support. And I think the, another element for colleges to be considered as intentionally about how to communicate with students about programs that do exist. So we emphasize removing stigma.
You know, one of the students in the interview that we conducted referenced that the, their institution had, um, interview clothing that they could take for free. That was in a box and a heavily traffic hallway, very clearly targeted for, if you don't have nice clothes here, it is for you. And so this was clearly a well-intentioned resource that students felt understandably uncomfortable about going and sifting through.
And so we suggest thinking about how to, how to. Provide these to students in ways that reduce the stigma, that's welcoming, that's supportive. If there's free food available, make it look like just a helpful place where any student can grab lunch on the way to class. You know, these are resources that that folks can, can partake in and that support them.
And the other thing that we have seen that, um, I think can go really well is embedding connecting students to holistic support at all levels. So students trust information from the folks on campus, they trust their advisors, tackle the financial aid counselor who always gets them the answers. So putting information about how students can access on campus resources in syllabuses or syllabus in material they're already getting, you know, these could be helpful ways to spread the word.
Um, around services that may already exist on campus that that students might not know about. Um, some of the other things that we are are big supporters of in terms of resources on campus related to student hunger, um, colleges can partner with local food banks establish on campus food pantries. They can communicate directly with their students about snap eligibility and support them in signing up.
Um, with the recent, uh, the one that passed in December relief legislation at the federal level, it was a substantial increase in the amount of money available to students through snap and funding that they can use, um, to purchase food. And so any student with an expected family contribution of zero or who was awarded federal work study or mass grant can apply for snap at
And this is can support students and doing that. Um, uAspire is really thrilled to be part of Massachusetts Hunger-Free campus coalition in support of a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that would establish Massachusetts Hunger-Free campus initiative. And this would be a grant program for public colleges and universities.
And private colleges that, um, that serve a high share of low, uh, students from low income backgrounds to implement some of these food security initiatives and expand the capacity of the department of higher education to support colleges in rolling these out. Um, hope lab found that 37% of students in the public higher ed system in Massachusetts had experienced food insecurity.
And that was in a report that was before the pandemic. So these indirect expenses have material impacts on students. And so there are a lot of things that that campuses can do, and that we're hopeful that the state can do to bring resources to campuses, to build up those supports for students.
Jonathan Hughes: We will link to this report in our show notes so that people can, can take a look at it.
And I hope that they will because, um, like everything that you do it is fantastic. And I can't wait to see what, um, what you guys do next. And I want to thank you for coming on the show and to, to talk about it and good luck with everything.
Anika Van Eaton: Thank you, Jonathan. It was great to be here. Yeah,
Holly Morrow: Thanks, Jonathan so much really appreciate you having us here.
And we did just want to offer, we do have a lot of resources on our website that are free, so different things like checklists, um, tools for students and for, for families, we have helpful videos about the financial aid process and of course that, that college cost calculator as well. So, um,, check it out. There's some great stuff there.
Jonathan Hughes: Special thanks to Anika and Holly. Thanks for listening to the show everyone. Remember if you liked the show, please subscribe on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you're hearing this. And if he could do us an extra favor and give us a five star rating on Apple podcasts. Oh, we'd love that. So, uh, Julie, thank you for joining me today. It was fun. Yeah. Thanks. One day we'll manage to not talk at the same time at the end, but until next time. Thanks everyone.

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