Lack of transparency in UM’s cost of attendance burdens students

Photo credit: Roberta Macedo

The spring semester always arrives with a multitude of tasks to be completed — meetings with advisors, enrolling in classes and securing housing somewhere in Miami. But this year, many students face an especially hard financial reality that has left them asking an important question: Can I afford to come back next year?

I am among the many students who have struggled to answer that question since the minute we returned to campus in January. The University of Miami projects that the cost of attendance for the 2023-2024 academic year could soar by $10,000. When my parents and I revisited our college budgeting spreadsheet, we discovered that the drastic increase was not the only problem.

As none of the costs for the 2023-2024 academic year have been finalized and information about financial aid has not been released, we were forced to guess how much tuition, dining and housing costs would rise. We have no way of determining the accuracy of our estimates, and therefore no way of telling whether a future at UM is feasible.

With the student debt crisis growing, every slight increase in direct costs warrants attention. Furthermore, not having access to the financial details we need hurts the ability of students and their families to make fully informed and wise financial decisions, especially when deadlines to apply to other schools’ priority scholarships pass in February.

UM does its students a disservice by not making financial information available until the last minute. While this problem is not unique to UM, the principle is wrong. Students deserve to know what their direct costs for the next school year will be so they have ample time to make decisions about the future of their education.

The estimates UM has provided for next year’s costs are beneficial, but only to a point.

The 3-4% increase in tuition is typical of most universities, so it is something students can anticipate. What have been most jarring to students are the food and housing estimates. Compared to this year’s costs, the combined cost of food and housing for students living on campus next year appears to increase by approximately 33%.

The estimated costs for next year are based on “the weighted average housing charges for on campus residence, and 21 meals a week through the campus dining plan.” What most students do not know is that this year’s housing and dining costs were based on the price of a standard freshman double and a 21 meals a week dining plan. The costs for 2023-2024 look significantly higher because the costs of all residential areas are factored in with the exception of the University Village (UV).

Understanding the distinction between how housing and food costs are calculated year-to-year is crucial for students. The website does not make clear that all residential colleges were not included in cost of attendance in previous years. Lakeside costs are significantly higher than other residential areas, which drastically increases the estimate. Even though students still have to work with hypotheticals of exactly what each room costs, knowing that the increases will not be as radical as the website portrays makes a world of difference.

I learned this after months of questioning about how much housing costs are going to raise per area. Knowing this information earlier would have been very beneficial for myself and other students as we attempt to anticipate our costs. It could be the difference between someone choosing to transfer or stay at UM.

With Lakeside prices accounted for, it is clear that the costs for many students living on campus are comparable to the projected rates for students living off campus. The cost of housing in Miami is 42% higher than the national average. While the current school year’s prices showed students living on campus (not including the UV) saving approximately $4,600, the estimates for next year only show an $866 difference. Since sophomores’ only option for on campus housing are Lakeside or Eaton, they will bear the burden of this increase.

Students can try to minimize their costs by selecting the cheapest housing options, but with a shortage of space on campus, there is no guarantee that getting a room within their price range is possible.

The university’s Housing and Residential Life website states that finalized “rates for the next academic year are typically available mid-spring semester of the preceding year.” By June 1, students are responsible for paying their housing costs for the following year whether they remain enrolled at the university or not.

It is difficult for students to initially make choices about where to live without specific costs, even with traditional increases. This is one of the many hypothetical factors that make it impossible for students to anticipate how much their cost of attendance will increase. Additionally, not releasing the information until late in the semester creates a rushed and stressful environment for students and families, especially when considering to stay at UM or transfer elsewhere.

Another problem is that asking these important questions often leads to contradictory responses or non-answers.

I personally opened cases with ‘Canes Central and housing and found that they could not provide information beyond the website’s estimates. While the website states housing rates will be out mid-spring semester, I was told via email the housing numbers won’t be out until May, and in person I was told it could be June or July.

When inquiring about financial aid, I was informed that they process incoming freshmen first and wait for final transcripts to be released to tell returning students about their aid. Giving priority to freshmen makes sense, but there surely must be some way to give returning students answers so they are not left wondering if they need to transfer or not.

Not only did I receive non-answers, but in-person I felt talked down to and dismissed, as if my questions about next year were absurd and irrational. Asking questions about financial logistics is anything but irrational; it is something all students should do as they embark on their college career, including at the beginning and end of every semester.

Unfortunately, these difficulties are not uncommon for UM students trying to get answers.

“When I reflect on my experience at the University of Miami, the most stressful part has been navigating financial aid,” senior Cassandra Michel said. “Every year, I dread going to the financial aid office because I know I will not get clear answers. It often feels like there is no clear consensus among the financial aid advisors at the office. The burden of having to figure out finances every year because the cost of attendance is constantly rising is extremely stressful.”

A freshman student who wishes to remain anonymous said, “I have had several difficult experiences with both financial aid issues as well as scholarships. I have tried to work with several people in person, over Zoom and over email and I keep on getting dead ends. The university needs to make it easier to connect with people who can provide help.”

If there should be one office on campus that is as user-friendly as possible, it should be ‘Canes Central. Grappling with financial information alone is stressful enough; the last thing students need is to get conflicting information or be greeted with resistance in the office. The difficult experiences shared by students indicate that something needs to change.

Inflation is skyrocketing in the United States, so it is no surprise that the costs of attending educational institutions is rising. Even with generous scholarship and need-based aid, UM is a highly expensive private institution that can leave students with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Paying full price or benefiting from aid or scholarship does not determine who this problem affects. No one should be okay with having abstract financial amounts until the last minute.

After climbing the ladder and finally getting some clearer answers, I realized UM is not the place for me to continue my education. Long waits for tidbits of information that cannot be guaranteed is something I would have to put up with every year, and with that comes high-anxiety and the inability for my family to financially plan for the future.

Realizing that financial information was not readily available here meant I had to rush to apply to other colleges before the February 1 priority scholarship deadline. I discovered most schools provide students with significantly less merit scholarships after they have earned 24 credit hours from one institution. This leaves students like myself with only in-state options. Though I know I will find success anywhere, it is hard to realize that what was once my dream school has become the place that limited my options.

To the university officials and administration, I implore you to consider the enormous mental and emotional strain it places on students to not know if they can stay here and have no way of discovering that until the eleventh hour. Without ample time to financially plan for the future, getting a degree from UM is not possible for many.

The system is capable of changing, and I hope that starts soon.

Sabrina Wilson is a freshman from Winfield, Kan., majoring in broadcast journalism.