College Costs Rise Beyond What Students Can Pay

Policy choices by political and institutional leaders have made college less affordable in all 50 states, with real consequences for American families. College Affordability Diagnosis, 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.

Among the findings:

  • Even in the best-performing states, college is less affordable than it was in 2008.
  • Students can no longer work their way through college in most states.
  • 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 — 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.
  • Geography can determine opportunity. College costs, available aid, and institutional options vary widely by state, even within the same region.
  • 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.

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.

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.

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