New Report Examines Today’s “Unaffordable Era” In Higher Education

Release Date: 
February 22, 2018

Findings show declining investment in public college in 49 out of 50 states since 2001, and skyrocketing prices for the working class

Washington, DC – Today, Demos, a New York-based public policy organization, released its new report, The Unaffordable Era: A 50-State Look at Rising College Prices and the New American Student. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, and the U.S. Census Bureau, the report takes a look at where college prices have increased the most in the past generation, and where students and families are bearing most of the burden of rising college prices.

The report finds that in 38 states, working-class students need to work more than 20 hours a week to avoid student debt at a public 4-year college, potentially putting their studies at risk. It also finds that in many states, college prices are truly burdensome, relative to family income, for people of color. In 26 states, the average net price of a public 4-year college makes up over half of a typical black family’s annual income. In 9 states, the average net price of a public 4-year college takes up over one-third of a Latino family’s median income. In 11 states, college prices take up 20% more of a typical black family’s income than a typical white family’s income.

“When our country invests in students and public colleges, we all benefit. Unfortunately, due to austerity, neglect, and lack of political fortitude, today’s students and families—the most diverse in our nation’s history—face a massive uphill climb in being able to afford higher education and get ahead,” said Mark Huelsman, Senior Policy Analyst at Demos and author of the report. “The only way to give today’s students a fair shot is for the federal government and state governments to come together and reinvest in our public institutions and the students that attend them. It’s time to give this generation the same chance previous generations enjoyed.”

Other Key Data: 

  • In 49 of 50 states, public college is less public now than in 2001. In all but 1 state (Wyoming), tuition makes up a greater share of total revenue brought in by public colleges and universities than at the beginning of this century.
  • Tuition revenue and per-student funding are closely linked. The 10 states that rank last in per-student funding of public college also rely the most on tuition revenue. Only 1 state in the top 10 in terms of per-student funding also receives more than 50% of its educational revenues from tuition. In other words, no states invest few dollars per student and also keep tuition low.
  • In 22 states, working-class students face an average net price—the amount needed to pay for college after grant and scholarship aid—of over $10,000 a year at 4-year public colleges. Since 2008-09 (the first year for which data are available), 20 states have increased the net price by at least $2,000 per year, even as incomes for the working class have lagged.
  • Community college is less affordable than many think. In 10 states, students must work more than 20 hours a week to pay the average price at community colleges—before they even pay for food, child care, or other basic needs—potentially compromising their studies. And in 32 states, students must work more than 15 hours a week.
  • Nationally, the net price of college is more burdensome for families of color than for white families. Nationally, the net price of a public 4-year college, after grant and scholarship aid, takes up one-third of median black family income and a quarter of median Latino family income, compared to a fifth of median white family income.

The Unaffordable Era is the second in a series of research reports that Demos has released this month on the burden of the rising cost of college. Last week, Demos also released When Congress Went to College, a yearbook which looks at the colleges attended by each member of the 115th Congress, and compares the price of tuition when they attended to today’s tuition costs at those same colleges. 

Since 2006, Demos has been a leader in advancing policy solutions to address the college debt crisis facing America’s students After years of studying the trends in funding for higher education at the state level, Demos released a policy blueprint in 2014, titled The Affordable College Compactunder the leadership of Tamara Draut, Vice President of Policy and Research. For the first time, the compact outlined a detailed approach to achieve debt-free college through federal-state partnerships, with the goal of making public higher education more affordable for all students.

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