NCAN Analysis: Dozens of States Lack Affordable Four-Year College Options

February 6, 2018

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy 

The public higher education system in the United States is a promise that every student who is prepared for and desires to pursue higher education should have the opportunity to enter. However, this is not currently the case.

Students in 17 states and Puerto Rico can’t afford to attend a four-year public college and live on campus, even after grants, aid, loans, and working full-time over the summer. Living off-campus, but not with family, increases the number of unaffordable states to 21 along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia for students. (The less expensive option of living off-campus with family is not available for all students when, for example, there's no four-year campus within driving distance). When students don't work over the summer, the number of states where public four-year colleges are not affordable on average balloons to 43 states and Puerto Rico for students living on-campus and a staggering 46 states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico for students living off-campus. (Download the data here.)

Postsecondary education comprises multiple college pathways – including those to bachelor’s or associate’s degrees, or certificates. However, for low-income students and students of color, a four-year degree is the surest path to the middle class. For that reason, it is vital that low- and moderate-income students have affordable postsecondary options – not only a certificate or associate’s degree, or through a frequently convoluted transfer process, but a traditional four-year degree, should they desire one.

Which begs the question, is college affordable? And the answer is, it depends.

In approximately one-third of states and Puerto Rico, college is not affordable, on average, for a student who receives the average Pell Grant award. These students are still expected to contribute some funding to their education in addition to grant aid and loans.

And in the two-thirds of states where college is considered affordable based on the below definition, it is assumed that students are working full-time and receiving the minimum wage over the summer. But for many, that is not possible – for example, they may not be able to secure full-time work or dedicate the hours due to familial responsibilities such as providing child care for younger siblings – and many students must spend those wages not on their educational pursuits but on family expenses or the costs of living incurred when students are no longer able to live at home. The situation is far more dire for these students when only a handful of states provide an affordable, four-year option.

These calculations are also based on the financial aid packages for first-time, full-time students. Students who transfer or enroll on non-traditional schedules are much less likely to get even this amount of aid.

How do we define affordability?

In the current higher education ecosystem, what does affordability look like? Here’s NCAN’s definition:

The average Pell Grant recipient* should be able to cover the cost of attendance and have $300 on hand to cover an emergency when using their combined federal grant aid, state grant aid, institutional grant aid, federal student loans, Expected Family Contribution, and wages from reasonable work.

Or, as a formula:

Cost of attendance + $300 = federal grants + state grants + institutional grants + federal loans + EFC ($2,080) + wages

*The 2016-17 Pell Grant was $5,820, with an average award of $3,740.

When examining specific institutions using 2016-17 data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the picture is about the same. The available data show there are 550 public colleges with students in on-campus housing. Of those, 41 percent are not affordable, according to NCAN's definition. The numbers are similar when looking at the 673 schools with students living off-campus but not with their families: 45 percent are not affordable. When students cannot work full-time over the summer and contribute every penny to their cost of attendance, the proportion for both categories drops dramatically, to 15 percent.

Affordable Public Colleges for Students Living on Campus
 Total Campuses Reporting Aid Averages  550

 Affordable with Grants, Loans, Federal Work-Study , and Full-Time Summer Work

 325 (59%)

 States with At least One Affordable Campus

 Affordable with Grants, Loans, and Federal Work-Study  109 (20%)
 States with At Least One Affordable Campus  32
Affordable Public Colleges for Students Living Off-Campus, Not with Family
 Total Campuses Reporting Aid Averages  673
 Affordable with Grants, Loans, Federal Work-Study, and Full-Time Summer Work  368 (55%)
 States with At Least One Affordable Campus  45
Affordable with Grants, Loans, and Federal Work-Study  104 (15%)
 States with At Least One Affordable Campus  29

The distribution of campuses by state should not mask the severity of the concern. In states with only one or a few affordable campuses (a state-by-state, campus-specific list is coming soon to, there can be capacity or logistical issues as well. In geographically large states, students may not want to travel hours away from home for the more affordable option.

Ideally, all public colleges should provide affordable access to higher education for their in-state residents. Beyond just the economic mobility of our low-income students, their opportunity to choose their future based on their interests and talents, the same as their higher-income peers, is paramount to building an equitable higher education system.

The country is already losing college-qualified students from the pipeline. A new analysis from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce demonstrates that every year, 500,000 students in the top half of their high school class, 47 percent of whom are low-income, do not complete even a certificate. Furthermore, low-income, high achieving students are significantly less likely than their higher-income peers to apply to selective institutions. This is further compounded by the fact that selective institutions generally offer more generous financial aid packages than do less-selective institutions. While some of these selective schools are private institutions, state flagships frequently fall into this category as well (flagship data are coming soon to

This definition of affordability is designed to apply to traditional students due simply to the data available. The more complicated a student’s situation, the less likely it is that a school is affordable. These calculations do not include the cost of child care, medical bills, or familial obligations such as helping parents pay for expenses even if the student does not reside with family members year-round. With 25 percent of college students having dependents of their own, ignoring these hard-to-quantify costs glosses over the full affordability picture. It is possible to calculate similar affordability figures for students who live with family while in college, but there is no guarantee that such an option is available to post-traditional students. Families may not permit it, or campuses may not be within driving distances of their homes. The affordability picture offered here is the best-case scenario, and it’s not a positive picture.

Our country needs better answers to the growing affordability crisis for low- and moderate- income families. The answer must be more comprehensive than tracking these students into fields that require shorter-term and therefore cheaper certificates/degrees or require debt beyond that incurred through direct federal loans to students. The answer must bring the federal government, states, and institutions together to provide an affordable bachelor’s degree to any qualified students who desires it.

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