January 23, 2002 2 min read

College Costs

A new report from the Lumina Foundation for Education says that even with financial aid, many students from low-income families have a difficult time affording higher education.

The study from the Indianapolis-based private group, titled “Unequal Opportunity: Disparities in College Access Among the 50 States,” examines 2,887 public and private, two- and four-year colleges and universities in every state and the District of Columbia.

In assessing a college’s affordability, the authors looked at college expenses and family resources, along with how well federal, state, and institutional aid helped meet the financial needs of students.

The study, released Jan. 7, found that whether students can afford a college education depends in many cases on the state in which they reside.

Under the report’s criteria, all public four-year colleges are affordable for poor students only in five states—Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, and Wyoming. But even in those states, it said, most students need to borrow money to pay for their education. In 14 other states, fewer than one- fifth of public four-year colleges are affordable for low-income students, the report found, even if students borrow up to $5,000 per year.

The authors found that most states provide access to public two-year institutions for low- and median-income students who are still considered dependent upon their families. But they said that access is more limited for low- and median-income students who are financially independent.

“Even at institutions we consider most affordable—public colleges and universities—low-income students must borrow money to make these institutions affordable more often than their median- income peers,” said Derek Price, the director of higher education research at the Lumina Foundation and a co-author of the report.

But Richard Ekman, the president of the Council of Independent Colleges, criticized the scope of the study. While private colleges enroll fewer than 25 percent of all undergraduates, he said, they account for nearly one-third of graduates. Given that strong performance of private institutions, he said, the report missed opportunities for stronger policy recommendations.

“Many private institutions are more than ready to serve additional median- and low-income students, if state governments would either provide appropriate student financial aid or establish more of a level playing field through their tuition policies,” he said.

—John Gehring

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week