White Paper: Shutting Low-Income Students Out of Public Four-Year Higher Education

May 17, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

Download NCAN's new white paper, Shutting Low-Income Students Out of Public Four-Year Higher Education.

College affordability is a perennial topic around kitchen tables, in the media, and for stakeholders with interest in seeing more students access and complete a postsecondary education. Low- and middle-income students and families wring their hands over the tuition bill that will come due before even setting foot on campus, as they worry about whether they can afford this investment in their futures. The National College Access Network’s new analysis shows that, unfortunately, that worry is justified far too often, at least when considering four-year public institutions.

The white paper considers the affordability of four-year public institutions for an average Pell Grant recipient who receives the average amount of grant aid, takes out the average amount of federal loans, and collects reasonable work wages to contribute to their education. An astounding 75 percent of residential four-year institutions – including 90 percent of flagship institutions – failed our affordability test. The average Pell Grant recipient in our model would be able to afford just 139 of 551 residential four-year public institutions across the United States.

Here at NCAN, we represent nonprofit organizations and schools committed to helping more low-income students and students of color enter and complete postsecondary education. Since our founding in 1995, the narrative about affordability that we hear from our members has changed for the worse, and our analysis confirms this trend.

“In the mid-2000s, I often said with confidence that if we did our job right, and our students followed our guidance, they could find a college pathway where finances did not have to be a barrier to success,” Traci Kirtley, chief program officer at NCAN member College Possible, wrote this year.  “A decade later, I can no longer say the same thing. In 2018, we can do everything right, our students can follow all our best advice, and they can still find themselves without an affordable college option that gives them a good chance of earning their degree within six years.”

Beyond first-time, full-time students living on-campus and working over the summer, our analysis also considers three other student scenarios. Students who live off-campus (not with family) and contribute summer earnings to their education have the highest percentage of affordable institutions to choose from, at 27 percent. By contrast, just 3 percent of four-year public institutions are affordable for those students who cannot contribute summer earnings to their postsecondary education, whether they live on campus, or off campus and not with family. None of these three alternate scenarios paints any more optimistic a picture for the prospects of affordability, and given that our analysis only examines students paying in-state tuition rates, prospects vary widely within and across states.

The glaring shortage of affordable four-year public options across the country is especially concerning given these institutions’ dual mission to provide postsecondary education to individuals and to promote an educated citizenry as a public good that benefits communities, states, and the nation as a whole.

Postsecondary affordability is a significant equity issue for low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color across the United States. These student groups access and complete college at lower rates than their peers, and when they do complete they are more likely than their peers to obtain an associate’s degree or certificate.

We hope that our analysis serves as a wake-up call to federal and state policymakers. This is not a problem on the margins of higher education. This is not a smattering of unaffordable institutions. This pervasive issue affects students in all 50 states. Without policy change that focuses on closing affordability gaps, the status quo of inequity will continue, denying students opportunities for economic mobility and personal and professional enrichment, and denying the public the myriad benefits associated with increasing levels of education – economic, civic, and otherwise.

NCAN members across the country work hard every day to put students on the best possible path for postsecondary success; unfortunately, those paths will continue to narrow unless policymakers act purposefully.

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