By Kim Clark
March 24, 2017

The vast majority of colleges are unaffordable for working-, middle- and upper-middle class students who don’t want to borrow, a new study has found.

And even if students are willing to take out the maximum federal student loans, at least 70% of colleges are unaffordable for working and middle class students, according to an analysis by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Using a benchmark created by the Lumina Foundation, which funded the study, IHEP called a college “affordable” if the net price (total cost after grants and scholarships were subtracted) could be paid by a student working 10 hours a week during the school year, and a family who had put aside in a college savings account 10% of their disposable income for 10 years. Families earning less than about $50,000 were assumed to have no disposable income, and, thus no college savings.

“These findings paint a bleak picture,” said Mamie Voight, IHEP’s vice president of policy research and a co-author of the study.

By collecting the estimated net prices colleges planned to charge students who come from families with, for example, about the median income, (which is roughly $72,000 for all families) the findings “reflect real families, the real conversations that are happening around kitchen tables, and the frustration families are feeling when they find out college is so out of reach,” Voight said.

She noted that the findings debunk an often-repeated belief that low-income students get more or better financial aid than middle income students do.

In fact, only about 2% of all colleges nationwide – about 40 schools – provide enough aid or have such low tuition that they are affordable without loans to students from families earning less than about $36,000, IHEP found.

(The study does not make the names of the affordable colleges public. But with funding from the Lumina Foundation, Money.com has created a tool to allow students from families earning less than $48,000 to find out which schools are likely to offer them an affordable price.)

About 5%, or 100 schools, are affordable to students from families earning about $69,000 who don’t want to borrow, the study found.

Surprisingly, even wealthy families – students from families earning about $163,000 a year – find that 10% of colleges are still unaffordable without loans.

Low- and middle-income students who are willing to borrow the maximum $5,500 federal student loan for freshmen see their options rise to about 600 colleges (about 30% of all schools.) Wealthy students who are willing to take out their loans can afford at least 95% of all colleges.

Making things even bleaker for the working and middle class: Voight noted that their study was the “best-case” scenario since it assumes students can get into all colleges, including the very generous elite colleges, and that the students are able to get in-state tuition at every public college.

In fact, data analysis using net prices that schools actually report charging students from different income levels (as accessed through Money.com’s Affordable College Finder) reveals that, say, B-minus and below students in many states – including Georgia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire – have no affordable four-year college options because their public colleges have high tuition and what financial aid is awarded tends to go to those with top grades without regard to the student’s financial needs.

IHEP compiled the net price estimates for 10 different kinds of students at more than 2,000 colleges – ranging from local public community colleges to Ivy League universities. A college’s “net price” is the total cost of attendance (including tuition, fees, room, board, books and extras such as laundry and travel) less any grants or scholarships. Federal law requires each college to post on its website a “net price calculator” which allows applicants to enter their personal financial and academic information and find out their likely aid and net price. The study complied the prices using a free tool called College Abacus, which allows students and researchers to easily compare hundreds of schools’ net price calculator results.

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