College Unaffordable Even in Higher Income Brackets

Joni E. Finney

College is becoming less and less affordable to more and more families higher and higher on the socioeconomic ladder.

As tuition and other fees have climbed and state funding of public institutions has failed to keep pace with rising costs and growing enrollment, a college education is being priced out of the reach of middle-class and even upper-middle-class families.

According to a recent report from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University, families earning 48,001 to $75,000 a year had to pay a significant portion of their gross income to send a student to a public four-year nondoctoral institution. On average, it cost 16 percent (in Alaska) to 33 percent (in New Jersey) of their income in 2013, the latest year for which complete statistics were available for the report.

The burden was higher at public research universities, according to the report, “2016 College Affordability Diagnosis.” Families would have had to pay, on average, 17 percent (Wyoming) to 31 percent (Alabama) of their income to enroll in such state-run institutions as the University of Wyoming or the University of Alabama.

Private institutions offered no relief. Of the states where at least 20 percent of students attended private nondoctoral colleges and universities, families earning $48,001 to $75,000 were required to pay, on average, 16 percent (Idaho) to 45 percent (Rhode Island) of family income to enroll in these institutions.

Even the safety net of community colleges is fraying. Public two-year institutions, which used to provide affordable educational opportunities to many people, no longer do so. Families earning $48,001 to $75,000 a year had to pay 11 percent (Mississippi) to 22 percent (Minnesota) of income to enroll in this sector.

State policy makers often are pleased to promise improved educational attainment — for the sake of both a strong civic culture and a robust economy. If they are serious about this, they must make it a priority to lower the financial burden of higher education on students from low- and middle-income families to increase their chances of enrolling and graduating.

Unless we make college affordable for people of all financial means, opportunity through higher education will be a false promise.

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