Research News

College affordability has declined in all 50 states: Report

Report: Policy choices have shut out lower-income families

College affordability has declined in all 50 states since 2008, according to a new report by Vanderbilt University, in collaboration with University of Pennsylvania and the Higher Education Policy Institute.

College Affordability Diagnosis is a comprehensive report that includes affordability diagnoses for all 50 states, a state ranking, an evaluation of student aid and other policies; recommendations for policymakers and an interactive online college affordability map.

William Doyle, associate professor of higher education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, is lead policy analyst and co-lead author of the report.

“Today, having at least some college education is a prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle, but the increasing prices are keeping out lower-income students,” Doyle said. “The federal government has expanded its commitment to ensuring that qualified students can afford higher education, but many state and institutional leaders no longer see it as their role to be meaningful partners in the federal government’s efforts.”

College Affordability Diagnosis 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. In some cases a family might be required to pay up to 50 percent or more of their annual income to afford full-time attendance at a public four-year institution in their state.

“College costs have increased substantially in a short period of time and need-based financial aid has not kept pace,” Doyle said. “It’s time to make college accessible for all qualified students, not just those who can afford it.”

Collaborators with Doyle on the study were co-lead investigator Joni Finney, practice professor and director of the Institute for Higher Education Research at University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education; Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute; and HEPI senior policy analyst Darcie Harvey.

Doyle's interactive map shows the percentage of income needed to attend college in every county in the U.S. Visit the map in the link below. (Vanderbilt)

“Many states have set ambitious goals and quotas for postsecondary education,” Doyle said. “But these increases in enrollment must come from populations that traditionally have not gone to college, including low-income students and members of racial or ethnic groups that have low enrollment rates. Continuing on our current path of increasing college prices will lead to fewer students in these groups enrolling.”

Without changes to affordability policies, the researchers warn, higher education will become another mechanism for the further stratification of America. The problems are particularly acute for the lowest-earning families. Current affordability policies do not take into account these families’ realities, the researchers found.

Hear more from Doyle and Finney about the study at the Education Writers Association annual conference in Boston this weekend. Their panel discussion, “State-by-State Rankings of College Affordability,” takes place Monday, May 2, at 10:30 a.m.

Watch a video of Finney discussing the research.