The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 2, 2015

Financial barriers to college depend on where you live

November 2, 2015

College affordability is a big issue these days. Presidential candidates are promoting their solutions to the problems they see voters facing, advocacy groups are speaking out against student debt, and both federal and state policy makers are searching for low-cost ways to make it easier for students and families to pay for higher education.

Financial barriers to higher education are a national issue because the nation’s economy depends on a well-educated workforce and because reducing inequality of opportunity should be a collective responsibility. But as two reports and a new interactive we released today emphasize, these barriers differ dramatically depending on where you live.

Some states fund their colleges and universities much more generously than others do. In 2014-15, seven states provided less than $5,000 per student in state appropriations; seven states provided more than $10,000 per student.  Public higher education systems also have different structures, some consisting almost exclusively of four-year institutions and others including large community college systems. Tuition levels, grant aid provided to college students, and the proportion of students who stay in their home states for college also vary widely across states.

For example, as our reports demonstrate, in the 2014–15 academic year, when published tuition and fees for in-state students averaged $9,139 at public four-year colleges and universities in the United States, Wyoming charged $4,646 and New Hampshire charged $14,712.  In 2013-14, state grant aid per full-time equivalent student ranged from $0 in New Hampshire and $42 in Alabama to $1,521 in Georgia and $1,888 in South Carolina, so differences in the published prices don’t necessarily correspond to difference in the net prices students actually pay after considering grant aid.

 The same college prices will have varying effects on college affordability in different parts of the country because of differences in incomes and costs-of-living. In 2013, median income for a family of four was almost twice as high in Connecticut as in Arkansas. The $10,435 public college tuition in Connecticut was lower relative to median income in the state than the $7,396 tuition was in Arkansas.

Later this week, when the College Board releases its 2015 reports on Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid, we will know more about how this picture has changed over the past year. But the basic story will not be different: Where you live has a lot to do with what kind of college education you can afford and how you will pay for it.

Understanding state-by-state differences is critical for designing national policies that can address college affordability across the nation. The recent focus on access to community colleges will affect students in California, Illinois, and Wyoming—where more than 50 percent of undergraduate students in the public sector attend two-year colleges—quite differently than it affects students in the five states where community colleges enroll less than a quarter of public college students.

If the federal government wants to influence the extent to which states provide need-based grant aid to help disadvantaged students cover college expenses, it should consider the reality that in many states, as our publications report, all of the aid is based on students’ financial need; but in seven of the 10 most generous states, more than half of the aid is distributed based on academic performance, without regard to ability to pay.

Current differences in funding, prices, student aid, and enrollments in public higher education across states reflect very different paths over time. Even when the national average published tuition price increases rapidly, some states hold their prices steady. While some states are now attempting to compensate for funding cuts during the recession, others are continuing to withdraw funding from higher education.

The federal government should actively engage in increasing educational opportunity for postsecondary students across the nation. But national solutions are challenging. Higher education is controlled by states, is financed quite differently in different places, and provides a wide array of experiences to residents of different states. Understanding these differences is the first step.

Students and others protest proposed state budget cuts for higher education, and borrowing costs involved in attending college, Thursday, March 1, 2012, in Philadelphia. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

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