NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

College Increasingly Costly For Low-income Families

May 2, 2002

A new study from the National Center for Higher Education asserts that poor and middle-class families have had to use s steadily larger portion of their income to send their children to the nation's colleges and universities over the last two decades. State spending on higher education and financial aid for students has lagged behind steep rises in tuition, the researchers found.

  • On average, poor families spent 25 percent of their annual income for their children to attend public four-year colleges in 2000 -- compared with 13 percent in 1980.
  • That compares with an increase from 4 percent to 7 percent among middle-income families, while the wealthiest families saw no increase in the 2 percent they spent in 1980.
  • While the average amount each state spent on higher education per student rose by 13 percent over that period, to $6,747, state institutions raised their tuition and fees by 107 percent, to $3,512, the study found.
  • The average federal Pell Grant program -- which is aimed at the neediest students -- covered only 57 percent of tuition at public four-year colleges in 1999, compared with 98 percent in 1986.

Alabama, Arizona and Hawaii were singled out in the study for widening the gap in affordability over the past 10 years.

Critics blame state lawmakers for not increasing aid at the same rate as college costs and decreasing it in times of recession; and public universities for engaging in bidding wars for the best students and faculty members as well as ambitious plans to open research centers with marginal educational value.

Source: Jacques Steinberg, "Greater Share of Income Is Committed to College," New York Times, May 2, 2002; "Losing Ground: A National Status Report on the Affordability of American Higher Education," May 2002, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.  

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