College Is Unaffordable Across the Country

Low income students are out of luck from Mississippi to New Hampshire

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(Image: iStock.com/TommL)

Most Americans recognize that the rising price of college—including at public institutions that educate the majority of students—is a problem and burden that students are shouldering by taking on more debt.

While students, parents, and policymakers all know that we face huge challenges in addressing college affordability, there is no agreed upon definition for the term “affordable college.” Defining this challenge is a necessary step to determine the scope of the problem and to assess which policy proposals would make college truly affordable for America’s families.

The Demos Report

In the new Demos report, Out of Reach: How a Shared Definition of College Affordability Exposes a Crisis for Low-Income Students, Demos’ Senior Policy Analyst, Mark Huelsman, uses the ‘Rule of 10,’ a benchmark developed by the Lumina Foundation to define college affordability and to assess which states have affordable college, and for which students.

Huelsman finds that the average net price for low-income students—those from families earning $30,000 or less—is unaffordable in all 50 states at both public four-year colleges and community colleges.

“We know that a college degree is more important to basic financial security than ever, and that students will do anything, including taking on high amounts of debt, to attain it,” Huelsman said in a statement. “But the decades-long playbook of austerity and insufficient revenue, and a refusal to re-fund higher education at even pre-recession levels, has gotten us to a point where no state can credibly claim that college is affordable for its low-income students. With no guidepost of what makes sense … it’s no wonder that policymakers continue to allow price to spiral out of control.”

The Lumina Foundation

Developed by the Lumina Foundation, the Rule of 10 suggests that college is affordable, if students can meet the total net price through 10 hours of work per week and 10% of a family’s discretionary income saved over 10 years. Using this benchmark, Huelsman examines the average net price for low-income students in every state at both public four-year colleges and community colleges.

Key findings include:

  • Black and Latino students earning the median income by race cannot accrue enough savings to make a dent in the projected net cost of college. Black adult learners face an affordability gap of more than $18,000 ($7,000 more than white adult learners); Latino adult learners face an affordability gap nearly twice as large as white learners ($21,000 to $11,000).
  • Among students who take on loans and earn the expected median income for college graduates, all workers still see an affordability gap. However, black and Latino students in our scenario face larger affordability gaps (more than $12,000 and $14,000 respectively), than white and Asian students.