The Unaffordable Era: A 50-State Look at Rising College Prices and the New American Student

Posted by Demos on March 19, 2018

Summary and Key Findings
The notion that any student, regardless of background or family finances, should be able to succeed in college is fundamental to the American ideals of opportunity and meritocracy. Because of this, we have at various times come together to make public colleges and universities more available and affordable to more students. These efforts have generally been successful; investing in affordable education is good policy that not only strengthens opportunity for individuals, but also builds communities, grows our economy, and affirms the values of our democracy.

As a degree or high-quality credential has become close to a requirement for financial stability, policymakers have abandoned the promise that those credentials would be primarily funded through taxpayer support and a modest contribution from students and their families. Some of these cuts are due to an ideology that prioritizes smaller government, lower taxes, and lower levels of public investment generally. In other instances, as the U.S. has undergone downturns in the business cycle, what have often been viewed as necessary and temporary cuts to public higher education funding have instead become the new normal, and per-student funding has generally been on a downward trajectory for many years.

The consequences of our austerity, neglect, and lack of political fortitude are felt most acutely by today’s students, the most diverse in our nation’s history. That today’s students face far higher college prices than previous generations is not in dispute. But the picture is not the same across the county, with wide variation in the levels of state commitments to higher education and to working-class students in particular. Even in states where support seems strong, working-class families face tuition bills that make up very large portions of their family income.

This report lays out where the affordability and funding crises are most acute, taking a state-by-state look at where students can hope to work their way through college, how much each state prioritizes public higher education, and where white students have the greatest advantage in being able to pay the rising price.

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