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Rising Costs Making It Hard for Students, Particularly of Color, to Afford College

October 25, 2019 at 10:00 AM

While state disinvestment in public higher education has helped drive rising tuition across the country, as we explain in our new report, tuition is rarely the total price that college students face.

In fact, students face a range of other significant expenses — not only housing and food (sometimes referred to as “room and board”), but also transportation, books and other supplies, and even child care. While students often receive federal Pell grants or other financial aid to help offset some of these costs, this assistance has not kept pace with rising tuition and other costs.

Since the 2008 school year, the net price — published tuition and fees, room and board, and books and supplies minus the average aid that a student received — at public four-year institutions across the country has risen by 24 percent, or roughly $2,920 after adjusting for inflation. Increases of this magnitude can deter students from attending schools they believe will be too costly, or from applying to college altogether.

This net price represents a significant share of many families’ annual earnings. In 2017, the average net price of a public four-year institution accounted for 23 percent of a family’s median household income nationwide.

This net price accounted for at least 25 percent of median household pay in 26 states (see table below). But this measure of affordability has stark racial disparities, since Black and Hispanic family members often face additional barriers to employment and difficulty accessing better-paying jobs.

  • For white households, the net price accounted for at least 25 percent of median household income in just 16 states;
  • For Black households, it did in 36 states (of a total of 38 states with sufficient data to assess); and
  • For Hispanic households, it did in 36 states (of a total of 46 states with sufficient data to assess).

To ensure that more students — regardless of race or class — can access and afford college, lawmakers must go beyond addressing rising tuition and ease the burden of other costs to attending while also boosting aid for students with the most financial need.

TABLE 1
Average Net Price of Attendance at a Public Four-Year University as a Share of Median Household Income, by Race, 2017
State Overall White, Non-Hispanic Black Hispanic Asian
Alabama 35% 30% 54%* 45%* 23%*
Alaska 15% 14%   18%* 16%*
Arizona 25% 22% 31%* 30%* 18%*
Arkansas 29% 27% 44%* 33%*  
California 16% 14% 24%* 20%* 13%*
Colorado 24% 22% 32%* 32%* 21%
Connecticut 22% 19% 35%* 35%* 19%
Delaware 21% 19% 30%*   13%*
Florida 20% 18% 26%* 22%* 15%*
Georgia 24% 20% 31%* 29%* 17%*
Hawaii 18% 18%   20% 17%*
Idaho 26% 25%   30%*  
Illinois 26% 23% 44%* 30%* 19%*
Indiana 21% 20% 34%* 25%* 17%*
Iowa 25% 24% 47%* 31%* 22%*
Kansas 28% 26% 44%* 35%* 23%*
Kentucky 30% 29% 40%* 34%* 25%*
Louisiana 30% 24% 49%* 35%* 22%
Maine 27% 27%      
Maryland 20% 18% 25%* 22%* 16%*
Massachusetts 23% 21% 38%* 43%* 20%*
Michigan 25% 24% 40%* 30%* 17%*
Minnesota 23% 22% 41%* 30%* 21%
Mississippi 33% 26% 49%* 34%*  
Missouri 25% 24% 39%* 28%* 21%
Montana 26% 26%   28%  
Nebraska 25% 24% 42%* 32%*  
Nevada 22% 20% 31%* 24%* 20%
New Hampshire 30% 29%   36%*  
New Jersey 20% 17% 32%* 29%* 13%*
New Mexico 23% 19% 31%* 27%*  
New York 17% 15% 25%* 24%* 16%*
North Carolina 23% 20% 32%* 30%* 15%*
North Dakota 22% 21%   24%*  
Ohio 31% 29% 52%* 41%* 23%*
Oklahoma 28% 26% 41%* 32%* 23%
Oregon 27% 26% 43%* 32%* 21%*
Pennsylvania 34% 32% 54%* 50%* 27%*
Rhode Island 26% 23%   40%* 24%
South Carolina 36% 30% 56%* 44%* 30%
South Dakota 30% 28%   41%*  
Tennessee 29% 27% 39%* 36%* 22%*
Texas 20% 16% 26%* 25%* 14%*
Utah 17% 16%   24%* 17%
Vermont 32% 32%      
Virginia 25% 23% 36%* 27%* 17%*
Washington 16% 16% 23%* 22%* 13%*
West Virginia 23% 23% 34%*    
Wisconsin 23% 21% 46%* 31%* 19%*
Wyoming 22% 22%   26%*  

Sources: American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates (Table B19013) and NCES Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

Notes: Results are not included where the standard error associated with the median income is more than 10 percent of the estimated median income and are presented with an asterisk where the median income for that group is statistically different from that of non-Hispanic white households. Note that suppression and statistical significance tests are tied to median income, not average net cost as a share of (estimated) median income. Some people in the "Black" category may also identify as "Hispanic," so these categories are not necessarily exclusive.


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