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College Education Less Affordable, According to New National Education “Report Card”

December 4, 2008

Higher education has become less affordable for current and prospective college and university students and their families, according to a new national education "report card" report released by The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The National Center’s "Measuring Up 2008" report card gives a grade of F for college affordability to all states except California, which received a C.

Each of the 50 states was graded based on the percentage of income (average for low- middle- and higher-income groups) residents needed to pay college expenses at public two-year and four-year institutions, after financial aid. Since 2000, increases in college prices have grown faster than investments in financial aid in all but two states. On average, college costs at four-year public universities represent about 40 percent of the income of lower-income students and families and about 25 percent of the income of middle-income students. Six states saw substantial declines in families’ ability to pay public four-year college costs, while eight states saw declines in affordability at community colleges.

The increases in tuition and other costs have had a particularly adverse effect on lower-income students and their families. For students from the lowest-income quartile, net college costs (total costs minus financial aid) accounted for 55 percent of median income in academic year 2007-2008, a 16-percentage-point increase over the share of income reported in 1999-2000. For students from the highest-income quartile, college costs represented 9 percent of median income (compared with 7 percent in 1999-2000).

Despite the rising difficulty of paying college costs, college access appears to have increased in many states. The percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled in college grew or stayed the same in 43 states over the past ten years, and 10 states received grades of B or higher in the college participation category. However, this good news is tempered by the fact that the United States as a whole has slipped in its leadership in college participation and completion. Currently, the U.S. ranks just seventh in the percentage of young adults enrolled in higher education, and ranks fifteenth in degree or certification completion per 100 students enrolled.

The one area of strength in U.S. higher education has been in the area of college access among older adults. The nation ranks second behind Canada in the percentage of adults age 35 to 64 who have an associate’s degree or higher. This high ranking reflects the recent increases in older adults who have gone back to school in order to earn higher credentials. However, among younger adults with college degrees or certificates, the U.S. ranks tenth.

NACUBO staff resource is Ken Redd.