Has college become unaffordable? Decades ago, the small share of students lucky enough to go to college largely paid their tuition out of pocket. But today, more and more students are pursuing higher education, and they increasingly rely on debt to do so. Price alone—and whether students have the cash on hand to pay it—is no longer an adequate measure of affordability.
This paper explores the answer to two kinds of questions: For whom is college affordable? And why? We’ll also measure how affordability varies across types of institutions.
We use data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) to analyze at length what families are paying for college and how they are paying for it, broken out by income level, race, and selectivity and sector of the institution. We also compare actual student experiences with a recently published college affordability benchmark, the “Rule of 10”—highlighting when and where attending college is or is not meeting its definition of affordability. We find that while a price-based benchmark of affordability, like the Rule of 10 (which excludes borrowing), is useful in assessing the up-front costs of higher education, it is limited in its ability to address broader questions of value. That is, price-based benchmarks cannot provide an answer to the question of whether a college education is affordable, or whether a particular degree, at a particular price, is worth it.
For example, by the Rule of 10, two-year degree programs are more affordable than four-year programs, simply because of their shorter duration. However, because of the higher rates of completion and greater economic returns to four-year degrees, if students could succeed in either path, they would find greater economic well-being from pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
For higher education to function as a mechanism for social mobility, we need to recognize a value-based framework for assessing affordability. That is, affordability is a function of both liquidity constraints and long-run financial return from more consistent employment and higher earnings. Otherwise, financially advantageous educational opportunities will be passed over for opportunities with a smaller price tag, even when the prospects are worse.
Beth Akers is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and coauthor of "Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt." Follow her on Twitter here.
Kim Dancy is an analyst for New America's Education Policy program.
Jason Delisle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.