Diagnosis: College Costs Pushed Beyond Families’ Ability to Pay

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Study Ranks All 50 States by College Affordability for Students and Families

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Kat Stein, Penn GSE                                      

Joan Brasher, Vanderbilt

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Philadelphia, Pa. — Policy choices by political and institutional leaders have made college less affordable in all 50 states, with real consequences for American families. A study published today by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) ranks all 50 states on college affordability, and gives a sobering view of the difficulty many low- and middle-income families have paying for college even after financial aid is taken into account.

Watch: Joni Finney explains how opportunity is often shaped by geography, and what state policymakers can do to make college affordable.

College Affordability Diagnosis provides a new understanding of college expenses in relation to family income, and how those expenses have dramatically changed in a short period of time. The study — by Penn GSE’s Joni Finney, William Doyle, associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), and HEPI senior policy analyst Darcie Harvey — shows the potentially devastating effects on America’s economy and social fabric if states and colleges fail to make meaningful changes. 

The full study includes affordability diagnoses for all 50 states; a map of college affordability by census tract and legislative district; a look at how student aid has dramatically changed in the last 20 years; a snapshot of student borrowing; and recommendations for policymakers.

Among the findings:  

  • Even in the best-performing states, college is less affordable than it was in 2008.
  • Geography can determine opportunity. College costs, available aid, and institutional options vary widely by state, sometimes within the same region. For example, Pennsylvania is 49th in these rankings. Its neighbor Maryland is 6th.
    • Financial aid doesn’t go as far as it used to. Even though more aid is available, it hasn’t kept pace with rising educational expenses.
    • Most community college systems, historically an entryway into higher education, can no longer be considered an affordable option.
    • Students can no longer work their way through college in most states (or most types of institutions). In many states, even full-time wages would not cover the cost of full-time attendance.
    • These economic barriers are a key reason the higher education attainment gap between Whites and minorities has persisted, and in some cases grown, even as the population continues to diversify.
    • Every state is projected to fall short of having enough college graduates to meet their workforce needs by 2020. In many cases, they are not even close. 

Together, these findings reveal a nation that is poorly positioned for the present, much less the future. Without changes to affordability policies, the researchers warn, higher education will become another mechanism for the further stratification of America.

“This study shows how the deck is stacked against low- and middle-income Americans when it comes to paying for college,” Finney said. “Without policy changes, the data point toward a problem that will only worsen. That paints a bleak picture for millions of Americans.”

Many decisions about the real cost of college — from the sticker price to financial aid options — are made at the state and institutional levels. If the country is to get serious about making college more affordable, the researchers find, this is where policy changes will need to occur. 

“State leaders can craft policies that ensure everyone who can benefit from college can go—but in too many states they have allowed college costs to rise beyond the reach of families,” Doyle said.

The problems are particularly acute for the lowest-earning families. The current affordability policies do not reflect these families’ realities, the researchers found.

“If you’re making $10,000 to $30,000 a year, and you need 10 percent to 15 percent of family income to attend community college, it’s just not going to happen,” Finney said. “If students are working, they’re working to support the family budget, because their families are living so close to the edge.”

Institute for Research in Higher Education at Penn GSE

The Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE), headquartered at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, conducts research relevant to policymakers and educational practitioners on higher education. Founded over 30 years ago, IRHE’s unique examinations of the policy forces that shape higher education, as well as the Institute’s ability to publish and disseminate new understandings of the impact of these forces, are widely respected nationally.



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