When most people talk about the rising cost of post-secondary education, the big issue for students — unless they have the luxury of living in their parents’ basement — is finding a cheap place to live.

CityLab, a publication that reports on the pressing issues facing the world’s metro areas and neighborhoods, charted the geography of the world’s 500 leading universities. It found that the top schools were concentrated around 20 metropolitan areas in North America and Western Europe, with only a handful in Asia and Australia—and none in other significant geographies of the world. Tied for first were London and Los Angeles, each with four universities in the top 100, followed by a three-way tie between Boston-Cambridge, Hong Kong and Berlin.

Living expenses are high in these cities, and they consume much of a student’s budget, from housing to food, transportation and health insurance. But researching the figures can be tricky because post-secondary institutions have wildly different ideas of how much it costs to live in school — and it varies even for institutions in the same city, according to an article in Marketwatch based on a study published in the Journal of Higher Education.

Colleges and universities publish an estimated cost of living in their recruitment literature. But the study found these estimates vary by as much as $4,000 to $5,000, on average, depending on the school. Nearly half of all colleges provide living-cost allowances at least 20 percent above or below estimated county-living expenses. The cost of living in Chicago, for example, is estimated at anywhere between $8,000 to $23,000.

And that uncertainty can have serious consequences for students trying to choose a school.

Finding realistic figures

A university that sets a low living-cost allowance might look more affordable than it really is and a student loan may not end up being enough to cover a student’s expenses. On the other hand, if the estimated cost of living is too high, it may scare away talent unnecessarily.

Living-cost allowances developed by colleges and universities also affect student eligibility for federal financial aid and the accuracy of accountability systems, according to the Journal of Higher Education study.

There are several reasons behind the discrepancy and uncertainty. Marketwatch says schools that attract a wealthier population might estimate a higher cost of living. Other schools may be under pressure to look more affordable than they really are.

So how can students get a realistic picture of their anticipated cost of living expenses? Instead of relying on a university’s estimates, they’re better off to do their own research from reputable, alternative sources. Students would be wise to compare the living-cost estimates from each of the universities in a metro or mega-region, and then compare those against city or county estimates, as well as analyst estimates such as Mercer’s cost of living rankings.

It’s also worth considering schools that fall outside of those metro areas; there are top-ranked schools in cities that have an overall lower cost of living, such as Warsaw, Poland or Mexico City, according to the QS World University Rankings.

Ultimately, when it comes to cost-of-living expenses, students shouldn’t take a university’s word at face value—particularly when their education is at stake.

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