- In all but three states, low-income students are on the hook for more than $3,000 to cover the full cost of attending a four-year public college, according to a new report from The Education Trust.
- The report takes the cost for first-time, full-time degree-seeking students whose families earn $30,000 per year or less and subtracts it from the combination of federal aid, grants and scholarships as well as the amount those students would earn working 10 hours a week at minimum wage.
- That difference, at the state level, averages out to $6,550 at four-year public schools, the report found. To cover their net cost, students in the demographic studied would need to work an average of 26 hours a week earning minimum wage.
The report follows recent data and analysis highlighting affordability concerns for low-income students at public four-year colleges. And it comes as states and institutions take a close look at how they can manage the cost of attendance for those students.
A report earlier this year from the National College Access Network found that just one in four public four-year colleges were affordable to low-income students in the 2016-17 academic year, down from one in three in 2012-13.
The consulting and advocacy group based its measure of affordability on whether the total cost of attendance was covered by the combination of the following, plus a $300 buffer:
- Average grant and federal loan awards.
- Average expected family contribution for students who get Pell Grants.
- The average Federal Work-Study award summer wages.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), meanwhile, found "enormous" affordability gaps for all but the highest-income students at flagship universities. Its researchers attribute that partly to institutions spending more to recruit high-income learners to increase tuition revenue and offset low levels of state funding.
At six flagships, aid to high-income students surpassed unmet need among low-income students. The report's authors suggest that attempts to recruit students who will likely pay more in tuition could end up limiting access for their lower-income peers. Further, the report suggests, institutions that are the most affordable for low-income students largely enroll the fewest of them.
The amount of merit aid that 46 public flagships awarded rose 65% between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 academic years, according to data analyzed by Bloomberg Government. That's compared to a 53% increase in need-based aid.
But in light of rising costs even at public institutions — their tuition increased 43% per student from 2008 to 2018 — some states are turning their attention toward increasing need-based aid. As Pew's Stateline publication reported earlier this month, that may come at the expense of more merit awards, which tend to help wealthy white students disproportionately.
In its report, The Education Trust echoed recommendations to increase the size of the federal Pell Grant (it suggests at least doubling it) and indexing the value to inflation.
The version of the 2020 spending bill working its way through Congress calls for increasing Pell Grants by $150, which according to the House Committee on Appropriations, intends to "help the maximum award keep pace with inflation." It also calls for a $50 million increase to the Federal Work-Study Program.
The Education Trust also recommends that free college initiatives, which mostly focus on two-year schools, cover costs of attendance beyond tuition for low-income students. And it pushes state lawmakers to increase higher education funding.