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SAIC’s Student Financial Services (SFS) has made significant changes to cost of attendance for the 2012-2013 academic year, which will lead to lower refunds for many students.

Cost of attendance is calculated by adding direct educational costs (tuition and fees) and indirect educational costs (books and supplies, transportation, room and board, and personal expenses). Each year SFS determines how much students are expected to spend on indirect educational costs, and this year they decided previous estimates were too high. Reducing these amounts can decrease the total amount of loans necessary to cover these expenses.

For example, the estimated cost for books and supplies for a graduate student in a studio program in 2011-2012 was $1370; for 2012-2013 it is $855. SFS also reduced their estimates for all other categories including personal, transportation, and room and board for all students (see infographic for the total amount that indirect educational expenses have been reduced for all students).

The decreases cannot be attributed to an actual decrease in the cost of living. According to the Consumer Price Index, the cost of living in the Chicago area has increased by 1.1 percent since July 2011. This year SFS adjusted the estimates based solely on a student survey they conducted October 2011.

“Our tuition is comparable, give or take, to our peers, but our cost of attendance was significantly higher,” Rose Milkowski, Vice President of Enrollment Management, told F Newsmagazine. “Part of that is because Chicago is an expensive place to live, but our estimates for certain categories like books and supplies seemed disproportionate.

In order to gauge the accuracy of their previous estimates, SFS surveyed 1700 undergraduate students and received about a 33% response rate. “The student responses actually would have decreased [the indirect educational costs] more, but we thought that was drastic and would have impacted their loan availability, so we went on the very high end of student responses,” Milkowski explained.

If SAIC’s estimates were previously higher than the estimates of other institutions, they are now significantly lower. F Newsmagazine looked at indirect expenses from The Rhode Island School of Design, California College of the Arts, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Loyola University and The University of Chicago. Pratt Institute was at the high end with $9250 allocated for indirect educational costs for off-campus undergraduate students and Loyola at the low end with $7410. For an SAIC student, it is now $6395, which is lower than the estimates made in 2009, according to student budgeting worksheets distributed by SFS.

Despite these differences, Milkowski emphasized, “[For] any student who struggles with that cost of attendance and can justify that they have to spend more, we can always make adjustments for them, no problem. If any students are greatly impacted they should talk to their financial services counselor and go through the process of extending their cost of attendance, for special cases.”

“Colleges and universities are given wide flexibility in how they determine the component parts that make up cost of attendance,” said Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst for the Education Policy Program for the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute. “There is no regulation that specifies exactly how it’s calculated — just what needs to be reported.”

F Newsmagazine spoke with Fishman in order to get a better understanding of how the cost of attendance is determined and what effect it can have on individual students. She confirmed that reducing the cost of attendance could potentially reduce the amount of aid offered to students.

FinAid.org, an award-winning nonpartisan site dedicated to providing “comprehensive and objective” information about financial aid in the United States, offers further insight into institutional reasons for lowering the indirect educational cost estimates. According to the website, “Some schools deliberately keep the student budget artificially low, since prospective students often use cost of attendance to compare competing schools.”

The website provides another reason, “The school might also use a lower standard student budget to discourage overborrowing by students. Students who have basic expenses beyond those specified by the budget are forced to ask for an increase.”

Fishman pointed out that according to the Project on Student Debt, SAIC has the highest average debt for 2010 graduates in all of Illinois at $39,306, with 50% of students graduating with debt. This is well above the the national average which is $25,250.

“It looks like student defaults on loans have been rising slightly,” She said. “The two year default rate on federal student loans for SAIC is 6.9%. Schools don’t want their defaults to get too high, because if they do, they could face serious sanctions, like losing Title IV aid eligibility, but SAIC is nowhere near [losing their eligibility].”

Decreasing the cost of attendance and, consequently, student debt may be a positive change for SAIC and its students if the new estimates accurately reflect student spending. But the verdict is still out on how much the changes will affect current and future students. The method chosen to lower the cost of attendance, however, highlights a systemic problem with the cost of higher education and a seeming inability to curb ever-increasing tuition and fees.

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