College Costs in Context: A State-by-State Look at College (Un)Affordability

College Costs in Context: A State-by-State Look at College (Un)Affordability

As sticker prices and student debt keep rising, students, families, and the policymakers who represent them are increasingly concerned about college affordability. Although debates about what is or is not affordable tend to focus on dollar figures, even a very low cost can be unaffordable for those with few resources, whereas a far higher dollar amount may be manageable for those with more resources. This brief looks at the burdens that the actual costs of public post-secondary education place on students at different income levels.

Net price is the total cost of college – including not just tuition but also textbooks, transportation, and living expenses – minus any state, federal, and institutional grants or scholarships the student receives. The net price of college generally increases with family income: students with higher family incomes tend to face higher net prices. While net price tells you what students and their families actually pay, it does not tell you whether they can reasonably afford to pay it.

In this analysis, we focus on college affordability as the proportion of family income needed to cover the net price that students are being asked to pay. Unlike looking at dollar figures alone, this provides a better sense of how manageable different prices are for families with different resources. Using the most recent data available for typical net prices at each income level, we assess college affordability for public two- and four-year college students nationally and in every state.

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