Nearly every college claims to be "affordable," but which ones really are?
A new benchmark indicates that comparatively few good colleges are fully affordable for the approximately 15 million families earning less than about $48,000. That group makes up more than one-third of all families with children under the age of 18.
The Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving higher education access and success, recently proposed that a college be called "affordable" if the cost of a bachelor's degree for a student is no more than the total of:
- 10% of the family's discretionary income over 10 years
- The amount a student can earn working 10 hours a week during the school year.
For families who don't have much discretionary income, that means a college is "affordable" only if it charges no more per year than a student can earn working part-time, which Lumina estimates at $3,625 a year.
MONEY tested this new definition of affordability against the net prices that colleges report to the government for different income groups.
Using this measure, we found only 40 "affordable" colleges for low-income students that met our standard for acceptable graduation rates (either significantly above what would be expected for their student population or at least the median for their type of school). All of the colleges on this list appear to provide enough scholarships so that a typical low-income student who works part-time should be able to graduate debt-free.
We also found dozens of top-notch colleges, including the University of Michigan, Yale, and Georgia Tech that were just a few hundred dollars above this threshold. This list highlights only the 40 most affordable ones.
To measure affordability, we looked only at the net prices colleges charged families earning less than $48,000, per year, in part because those numbers are the most reliable. We assumed that families earning less than $48,000 a year had no discretionary income, and thus could not contribute any savings to their child's college costs.
The U.S. Department of Education's financial aid formula does assume that many families earning more than about $30,000 can contribute to their children's college costs. But the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators says that for many families, that formula is unrealistic. The federal formula "no longer produces a reasonable estimate of what many families can be expected to contribute," says NASFAA senior policy analyst Karen McCarthy.
Instead, other analysts say that families earning less than $48,000, which is about twice the federal poverty line for a family of four, typically have no discretionary income. The Economic Policy Institute, for example, estimates the minimal family budget for a family of four "to secure an adequate but modest living standard" is at a least $49,000, but in high-cost cities such as Washington, D.C. can exceed $100,000. )
So here are the most affordable colleges for students from families earning $48,000 a year or less.
Read next: MONEY's 50 Most Affordable Private Colleges