Some colleges are unaffordable for many qualified students

Even when students from low- and moderate-income families qualify academically for highly ranked universities, they often cannot afford to go, perpetuating the wealth gap between generations, according to a new report.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report and is based on data from Tuition Tracker, a tool produced by The Hechinger Report and Education Writers Association for students and their families. The Dallas Morning News contributed.

By most measures, Aboubacar Konate was an outstanding candidate for college.

Konate graduated second in his class from The English High School in Boston with a 4.5 grade-point average. He was on the student council and debate team, took Advanced Placement classes in history and chemistry, speaks four languages, worked a corporate internship and played three sports: soccer, basketball and track.

He did everything he thought was needed to become the first in his family to go to college: worked hard and proved that he was smart enough to make it.

“I went through all the hoops, the struggles, the obstacles,” Konate said. “College was my dream and my goal.”

But the aspiring engineer fell short on one other measure: having the money to pay.

His father didn’t make enough to save for tuition; if there was anything left after covering rent and food for Konate and his two younger sisters, his father used it to support their grandparents. And while Konate won a substantial scholarship from a foundation run by onetime Boston Red Sox player Adrian González and his wife, he still fell far short of what the private universities he’d dreamed of attending expected him to pay.

The best deal he could get was from a private engineering college that offered Konate little to no financial aid, despite his high school record and economic situation; he would still owe more than $30,000 a year, even after subtracting his González scholarship.

He couldn’t afford it

“I lost all hope,” Konate said. “My family does not have money like that.”

Instead, he enrolled in a less expensive public university. When students do this, studies show, it often leads to lower post-graduate salaries or a higher likelihood of dropping out, reinforcing a cycle of income inequality.

An increasing number of American families are finding themselves in the same situation, according to federal data analyzed by The Hechinger Report in collaboration with the Education Writers Association, or EWA.

For them, after years of escalating college costs and stagnant earnings, the higher educations they desire for their children are conclusively, decisively and categorically out of reach.

“We’ve become numb to the problem of college costs. But this can be a bit of a wakeup call for people,” said Julie Margetta Morgan, a fellow at the liberal think tank the Roosevelt Institute, which focuses on economic policy.

Related: Ignore the sticker price at Michigan universities. Here’s the real cost

The message: “There’s a giant pool of hardworking students out there who are doing everything right from an academic perspective, the exact story you’d want to see in terms of dreaming big. And many of these students are priced out,” said Mark Huelsman, who studies education trends as a senior analyst at the left-leaning policy organization Dēmos. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Related: Billions in federal financial aid is going to students who aren’t graduating

It’s also simple math: The net prices charged by some private colleges and universities — the actual cost, after grants and discounts — are now significantly higher than some families’ entire annual incomes, the analysis, of U.S. Department of Education data, shows.

There’s some good news in the numbers: The average net price has stayed fairly flat for a decade now, at both public and private institutions, for families earning between $30,000 and $48,000. It’s even dropped slightly at private colleges and universities for families that make $48,000 or more, as those schools dole out more financial aid to fill seats in the sixth year of an enrollment decline.

But for families at the bottom of the income scale, earning $30,000 or less, the cost of college continues its relentless rise, with their average net price, after discounts and financial aid, reaching nearly $20,000 a year at private, and some public, universities and colleges. The figures are for 2015-16, the most recent year for which they are available.

And those are just the averages. Some private colleges charged a net price of as much as nearly $42,400 a year for families with annual incomes of $30,000 or less.

One school, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, charged a net price of nearly $50,000 for students from families earning $30,000 or less; another, the California Institute of the Arts, nearly $48,000.

The same institutions are equally pricey for middle-income families, costing up to more than $43,700 for those making $30,000 to $48,000 and nearly $50,000 for families that earn $48,000 to $75,000 a year, after scholarships and grants.

The data are available in the updated Tuition Tracker, a tool produced by The Hechinger Report and EWA for students and their families considering college. The website discloses the net price based on a user’s family income, and other essential information, by institution.

“It is completely infeasible to think that families can dedicate even half to three quarters of their income to put their kid through college,” never mind their entire incomes or more, said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of The Institute for College Access and Success, which tracks the debt to which many students turn to fill the gap.

The highest-income families pay, on average, 15 percent of their earnings for college, according to earlier research by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, or IHEP, while low- and moderate-income families are expected to finance an amount equivalent to 100 percent of what they make in a year. By that calculation, half of 2,000 institutions analyzed by IHEP were affordable only to the wealthiest students — those with annual family incomes of $160,000 or more — and one-third only to students from families that made at least $100,000 a year.

A separate Dēmos study found that, even at public universities, students from families earning $30,000 and less in 22 states face net prices of more than $10,000 a year. The net price of college is the equivalent of a third of black families’ median annual income  — and, in 26 states, more than half — and a quarter of Hispanic families’, compared to about a fifth of what white families earn. (The study was supported by the Lumina Foundation, which is also a funder of The Hechinger Report.)

These students often choose cheaper community colleges and second-tier public institutions with far fewer resources to support them, and lower graduation rates. If they do succeed in finishing, their incomes are likely to be lower than if they had attended one of the elite universities or colleges they couldn’t afford.

“How affordable a college is doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for a student,” said Brendan Williams, director of knowledge at the nonprofit UAspire, which helps low-income and first-generation students navigate the route to college. “The cheapest option is not always the best option.”

Related: Seeking advantage, colleges are increasingly admitting students as sophomores

This, in turn, perpetuates socioeconomic inequality, critics say; a new Federal Reserve Bank of New York report confirms the logical conclusion that students who go to less selective colleges and universities earn less than those who enroll at more selective ones.

The frustration for them is that the college they can afford is based as much on their own earnings after graduation — from which they’ll need to repay all the money they borrow — as their families’ incomes.

The maximum a first-year student can borrow with a federally subsidized loan is $5,500. That’s usually nowhere near enough to cover what many low-income students are left to pay for college, forcing them to resort to parent and private loans.

“We haven’t come up with quantitative cutoff about how much a student should borrow, because each individual student has to balance their own situation,” said Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at IHEP. “They need to do that calculus themselves, about what they can reasonably expect to earn with a degree.”

In addition to diverting many lower-income undergraduates to poorly resourced schools, the price also forces more of them to balance work with college than their higher-income classmates, which a new study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University finds significantly lowers their grades and prolongs the time it takes them to finish; only 22 percent of low-income students who work graduate within even six years.

Konate, who turned to UAspire for help, ended up at the public University of New Hampshire, which offered him more generous financial aid — though he was responsible for costs besides tuition, worked while in school, and still ended up with $60,000 worth of federal and private loan debt by the time he graduated last year.

Related: Bending to the law of supply and demand, some colleges are dropping their prices

“If you’re in my shoes, you can’t do anything about it but just go look for somewhere that’s more feasible for you,” Konate said.

Now a structural engineer, he mentors younger students in the same straits. “They have their hearts set on a school, but they just can’t afford it,” he said. “It worked out for me in the end, but for a lot of other students, it doesn’t, and they leave. Your dream of college fades away.”

Myiesha Robateau followed in Konate’s footsteps, graduating in the spring from Boston English. She wasn’t offered enough financial aid to go to her first choice of college, either, and instead began this fall at the public University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“It’s frustrating,” said Robateau, the first in her family to attend a four-year university. “Every student deserves to be able to go where they want.”

The overall cost of net tuition, fees, room and board rose 69 percent at public universities between 1997-98 and last year, even after being adjusted for inflation, according to the College Board. That’s a period during which the Census Bureau reports that median household earnings fell.

“The price inches up each year while family incomes for the vast majority of Americans stagnate,” said Huelsman.

This is not a secret to families with college-aged kids. Sixty-nine percent say they had eliminated a college from consideration because of the price, according to a survey by the student loan provider Sallie Mae. A record 15 percent of first-year students told another national survey, by an institute at UCLA, that they had to forgo enrolling at their top choice of college because of the cost. That’s up 60 percent since 2004.

Related: Colleges welcome first-year students by getting them thinking about jobs

Colleges are now required to disclose their net prices and provide net price calculators from which families are supposed to be able to determine the ultimate cost based on income. But the IHEP survey found another problem: The net price calculators at 80 percent of colleges were inaccurate or out of date.

There are some caveats to the data. They cover only up until the 2015-16 academic year, and do not include students who do not receive federal financial aid, because the government can’t track them. They also don’t take into account regional variations in the cost of living.

The bottom line is that the gates of some campuses are effectively closed to growing numbers of Americans, however, regardless of their academic talents.

“There is that whole idea where if you work really hard and get good grades and do all that stuff you’re going to be able to go to college and it will be affordable,” said Williams. “And that isn’t true any more.”

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Thu, 10/18/2018 - 8:11am

“It’s frustrating,” said Robateau, the first in her family to attend a four-year university. “Every student deserves to be able to go where they want.”
This article is exhibit "A" on the cluelessness and entitlement of Millennial and Gen I youth. No thought should be given to what a college charges for tuition verses what the likely income potential of the job one is prepared for by the sought after degree. No thought to alternative less expensive courses and schools, we want to go where we want! And of course some one else should pay for it!!! We just deserve it!!!

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 9:06am

My message to Aboubacar Konate.
I want to live in a $1 million dollar mansion. But I cannot afford that so I live in a $300K house.
I want to drive an $80K Lexus. But I cannot afford that so I drive a $35K Toyota
I want to vacation in Dubai. But I cannot afford that so I vacation in Mexico.
What we want and the reality of the world are different. Learn that message now.

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 11:42am

“It’s frustrating,” said Robateau, the first in her family to attend a four-year university. “Every student deserves to be able to go where they want.”

What a terrible job society is doing with these kids if they believe they "deserve" to attend an expensive college - because.

Quote: Deserve's got nothin' to do with it. William Munny

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 12:42pm

It's hilarious that the generation who could pay for college with a summer job are chastising students that are infinitely more qualified to attend college than they were because the poor can't afford it. Wait, it's not hilarious. It's infuriating that the "Got Mine" generation climbed the ladder and then kicked it away, and then has the gall to call us entitled. It's your generation that told us we had to go to college, had to get into a top 10 school, had to have a BS for a job that makes minimum wage. And when the student debt bubble bursts, don't you dare blame us for trying to play the game following the rules you wrote.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 10/18/2018 - 1:56pm

There's an argument that I haven't heard in a while: Bashing people with the "Got Mine" attack.

So, exactly what makes you feel that you are entitled to the labor of others?

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 4:58pm

Yawn, more Libertarian screed. Taxes are the price of living in a society that promotes the common welfare and protects its most vulnarable citizens from the depradations of the free market that you cherish. And that's how I know you've never been on the bottom of the heap. The fact is, you did get yours. You got an inexpensive education because America used to believe that an intelligent and informed populace benefitted everyone. Now, we've got a generation of people who can be bothered to notice that the system is collapsing around them because they're too enthralled with their 401ks being up 10%

Kevin Grand
Fri, 10/19/2018 - 7:04am

No, taxes are used to pay for the enumerated powers of the various levels of government.

Assuaging your own moral outrage doesn't even remotely fall under that category.

And for the record, I worked, saved and paid my own way.

So much for your "bottom of the heap" theory!

And it's kind of hard to continue to save for my own expenses (and I'm not the only responsible adult who does this), when people like you feel that they can spend my own money better than I can.

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 7:53pm

Bones, Once again you need to read without injecting your preconceived notions. The subjects here are whining that they can't go to a super expensive private school (I certainly didn't) to which they think they're entitled. But since you brought it up though, it definitely wasn't the Republicans, Conservatives or Libertarians saying that every kid should go to college, that would be folks on your side of the political spectrum but beyond that you're not totally wrong.

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 8:59pm

I begged, borrowed and borrowed more to pay for school. You have no idea what years I attended school. I never claimed to DESERVE to attend the school I wanted. Funny how you glossed over that. If he had used the word OPPORTUNITY I would be ok with it. Bi
It get over yourself....deserve? Please

Thomas E Graham
Fri, 10/19/2018 - 9:36am

At what point do you take responsibility for your own life? Our parents called us entitled, their parents called them entitled, etc... Society in general told me I needed to go to college to become a computer programmer. I didn't, couldn't afford it, even back in 1984 it was too expensive for me to afford even though I qualified for the Pell Grant. My mom was a stay at home mom, my dad an auto worker and I shared my bedroom with 2 older brothers. I taught myself computer programming, I accepted minimum wage jobs to gain experience, a decade later I started a contracting firm, and now, 2 more decades later I manage a programming department.
When you become an adult, you need to start making decisions for yourself. This "my parents forced me to go to college and forced me to borrow $64,000 to get a degree in women's studies, but I dropped out because of the patriarchy and its all my parents fault" line of thinking is utterly useless and detrimental only to yourself.
If my generation told you to jump off a bridge would you mindlessly do it, or would you think for yourself and determine if that's the best course for you? If you want to see who is to blame for your situation, look to the government that makes college money so easy to borrow and then look in the mirror.

Thomas E Graham
Fri, 10/19/2018 - 9:10am

There are major problems with this article. It presupposes the person going to college should not have debt and everyone should be able to afford college.
It omits the fact that there are very easy to get loans available to students with his GPA, academic record and field of study and once he's completed his first bachelors he qualifies for lots of post graduate scholarships.
It also omits the major problem that has contributed to the rise in college prices, freely available federal loans for any degree you choose, instead of limiting that money to vocational and STEM pursuits. Today, anyone can and does borrow tens of thousands of dollars each year to pursue degrees that are useless in the economy and most don't even complete the degree. Colleges are awash in Federal money which raises the cost of the limited supply of classes. Simple economics. Limit the flow of cash and watch college tuition go down.

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 6:43am

I graduated from the Private University of Detroit Mercy from a 6 Year Program. I did not receive any academic or athletic scholarship. I only received a nominal $500 Catholic Parish Stipend. My parents assisted me my First Year and the rest was up to me through part time summer jobs, a student loan, and a coop training job my last 3 years. I paid my student loan off 5 years after graduation. It is all Worth it - If you want it.

Go Detroit Mercy Titans!

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 6:24pm

The missing lesson for Michigan in the article is that the state-supported schools should be excellent, an alternative to the privates. Of course, that excellence needs support for students in need, and happily it exists. Students in Michigan do get choices, fine choices. You can start a very substantial career from Houghton, Grand Rapids, Detroit, E Lansing, and Ann Arbor. The one thing they also need are the opportunities post-graduation. If our grads do not find employment here in the State, we lose part of our future.