When It Comes to College Costs, Middle-Class Kids Are Still Screwed

A new report finds affordability has fallen in 45 states since the Great Recession.

(Photo: Marc Romanelli/Getty Images)

Apr 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s become an ironclad fact of life: Higher education is a prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle. But a new joint study shows that spiraling costs are pushing higher education further from reach for lower- and middle-income families, while state lines can determine how much they’ll pay.

The study by researchers at Vanderbilt University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for Research in Higher Education found that since 2008, overall college affordability has fallen in 45 states, owing in part to slashed state spending on higher education in the years during and since the Great Recession.

As a result, low- and middle-income earners in certain states now must spend as much as 76 percent of their annual income to pay a student’s tuition and expenses at a four-year public school, according to the study, The 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis. Things aren’t any better at the community college level, where some households with income of $30,000 or less are likely to pay as much as 61 percent of their earnings for costs at a two-year public school.

RELATED: Students Create Scholarship to Help Send Undocumented Teens to College

Meanwhile, financial aid doesn’t go as far as it once did, and access to it has tightened. An employed student would need to work so many hours to pay the bills—and probably is already facing pressure to support him or herself, or a family—that college would take a backseat to finding a job, the study says. That makes taking on heavy debt through student loans the only option for a young person who wants to get an education to get ahead.

“Education policymakers must seek to lessen the financial burden of higher education on these families,” the report says. “Unless we make college affordable for people of all financial means, opportunity through higher education will be a false promise.”

Will Doyle, an education policy researcher at Vanderbilt and one of the study’s authors, says a confluence of factors has caused the nation to “drift into a much more expensive system” that forces households into five- and six-figure debt to pay for college.

“What we’ve been doing is turning to students and family and asking them to make up the difference—to find the money or borrow the money,” says Doyle, an associate professor of higher education in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Unless the problem is addressed quickly, he says, things are likely to get worse.

Doyle says the group did similar work a decade ago, and things have not improved. “The picture wasn’t that great then. Ten years ago, there weren’t many reasonable observers who thought that it would get much worse,” he says. But it did. “Regardless of where states fall on current rankings of college affordability,” Doyle and his coauthors wrote, “all states have lost ground in some areas of college affordability since 2008. In 45 states, overall college affordability has declined.”

College falling out of reach is another burden for middle-class families to overcome at a time when roughly half of all well-paying jobs require some postsecondary education or technical training, and lower-income college students, who are largely African American or Latino, risk getting left behind in the new economy.

Last December, students at 120 colleges nationwide hit the streets to demand reform. Now, college costs have become a campaign issue, and some universities have opened food pantries to help their students eat.

The joint study lays out a broader picture. Analyzing federal data, researchers found that 15 states made community colleges more affordable between 2008 and 2013—families in those states would pay less of their household income, on average, for students to attend school full time. At the same time, only six states lowered the cost of four-year public colleges, and just seven saw improvements in the affordability of private nonprofit colleges and universities.

Doyle says the statistics are evidence of twin trends.

“The overall cost of higher education has gone up, more than any other cost in our society,” he says. “It tends to go up faster than incomes, and it goes up faster than inflation and goods and services in the economy.”

At the same time, although financial aid to students has gone up slightly, states by and large are spending less on education, and neither government nor the higher-education sector have done enough to keep tuition affordable, Doyle says. That “policy drift” needs to change, he emphasizes, and both sectors need to work together and prevent tuition from rising faster than household incomes.

“Education is a prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle,” Doyle says. In the 1950s and 1960s, “we kept the door open for college” by keeping it affordable, helping to build the middle class.

“What I’m worried about is we’re going to shut that door” for future generations, he says.