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The True Cost of Texas Public Postsecondary Education

Students who work or attend part time are at risk of prolonging graduation.

While the cost of tuition is at the forefront of most students' minds, this expense only accounts for about one-third of the total cost of college. The remaining costs are made up of food, housing, books, supplies, and discretionary expenses, such as transportation and entertainment. Across the nation, tuition rates continue to climb on a yearly basis. However, tuition at in-state colleges remains reasonable nationwide, and this is particularly true for Texas residents.

According to the State of Student Aid and Higher Education in Texas (SOSA), published by TG, Texas tuition and overall college costs are lower than the national average. At public four-year universities, Texas students save about $300 in tuition and $1,200 in books, supplies, food, housing, and other expenses, compared to national schools in the same sector. Similarly, at Texas two-year institutions, students save about $500 in tuition and $750 on food and housing.

For those attending two-year colleges — which amounts to nearly 670,00 of the more than 1.3 million students enrolled in higher education in Texas — food and housing costs play a more significant role in their total expenses. At two-year institutions, tuition accounts for only 16 percent of the total cost of college. For the 2009-2010 school year, tuition and fees for a two-year college in Texas cost $2,409, while the national average was $3,021. And food and housing for a Texas two-year college cost $6,765, compared to the national average of $7,520.

Dr. Richard Rhodes, President and CEO of Austin Community College District, and a member of the TG Board of Directors, says he recognizes the difficulties students face when dealing with school, personal and family responsibilities, and the total cost of attendance.

Rhodes asserts that students must plan ahead to avoid lengthening the time to graduation and racking up unnecessary costs. One strategy students can use is to get college credit during high school.

"Take advantage of dual credit while still in high school," said Rhodes. "And make sure when you graduate, you are college-ready. If you're in a developmental program, you're paying for and working on courses that don't count toward graduation."

Rhodes says that students should also evaluate how much they can work and still be successful in school.

"If they're (students) working long hours, it lengthens the time to graduate," said Rhodes.

According to Ready, Willing, and Unable: How financial barriers obstruct bachelor-degree attainment in Texas, a report published by TG in 2006, a number of factors can prolong graduation, such as delaying enrollment, attending part time, being a single parent, or working full time.

"The most important thing is to plan in advance and set goals," said Rhodes. "Physically map out courses. Be realistic about educational goals in terms of work and school."

In addition, students should evaluate their budget for school supplies and discretionary spending.

"In terms of books, can you buy them used or rent?" said Rhodes. "From a budgeting standpoint, how much do you spend a month on a smart phone, clothing, etc.? Also, use public transportation to help reduce costs."

SOSA also points out the cost benefits of Texas private four-year universities, highlighting that these institutions can be less expensive than the national average. For example, while the cost of tuition and fees for a Texas private institution is $22,244, the national average is $24,332, and the cost of housing totals approximately $6,642 compared to the national average of $8,460.

Planning ahead for college costs

As Pat Sivin of Houston attests, parents must take an active role in saving for a college education. She and her husband invested in the Texas Tomorrow Fund, now called the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan. This savings plan allowed the Sivins to put aside enough money to cover the cost of college tuition at the time of investment. This meant that even though tuition rates had increased by the time their children enrolled in college, the Sivins would only pay the amount locked in when they established their Texas Tomorrow Fund. Despite all of the pre-planning, when Sivin's daughter enrolled in a private four-year institution, she was surprised by the cost of housing and discretionary spending.

At her daughter's freshman orientation, financial aid advisors and counselors gave Sivin and other parents an estimate of how much their students' private university education may cost.

"They told us you can count on spending $35,000 a year between tuition, books, room and board, and entertainment, which I think is very accurate," said Sivin. "It was probably the living expenses that were the biggest ticket, especially as she lived alone in an apartment."

Sivin's advice to other parents is to plan ahead as much as possible.

"Start saving when they are babies," Sivin said. "That's what we did. We didn't want them to have to worry about leaving school with debt."

Whether students attend public or private institutions, the challenge of budgeting for college remains. With tuition only accounting for a small amount of the total college costs, students and parents can better prepare for the bulk of college expenses by using a variety of resources. Financial aid advisors, academic counselors, and online tools can help students and parents evaluate the true cost of attendance. By developing realistic expectations for the cost of college, parents and students can better prepare for funding a postsecondary education.