College Costs Increasing Dramatically For Poor Students. For Wealthy Students? Not So Much

The price of a college education has skyrocketed over the past decade—but not for wealthy Americans. Recent federal data shows it’s actually the families who can least afford a college education who have seen their costs double or triple over the past five years, as they bear the brunt of outrageous tuition hikes and funding cuts.

What this means is students like Ohio’s Cassandra Cecil are struggling to afford a higher education, and open the doors to prosperity in the United States. Get a degree, then get a good job: research shows that is still true — but only for those lucky Americans who can afford it. “Everyone should have the opportunity to get a higher education and better their lives,” said Cecil, a leader of the Ohio Students Association (OSA).

Cecil spoke earlier this month at the Ohio kick-off of “Higher Ed, Not Debt, a nationwide college affordability campaign. The campaign, of which NEA is a partner, is dedicated to improving state funding and financial aid policies, as well as helping current and former students pay off the overwhelming $1.2 trillion debt in this country.

That’s also the aim of “Degrees, not Debt,” a new NEA initiative featured at the NEA Higher Ed conference in St. Louis last week, where faculty and staff pledged to work for institutional and state reform. “When we sign these pledge cards, we are making a commitment to go back to our states and speak up,” said Theresa Montaño, president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education, a California State University, Northridge professor. During the conference, faculty and staff from Massachusetts to Michigan to Oregon pledged to do so.

What are they speaking up for? In January, in a letter to a U.S. House of Representatives committee, NEA laid out some of the solutions to the college affordability crisis. They include: more need-based aid, like federal Pell Grants; more affordable students loans; expanded loan-forgiveness programs for those in public service careers; and increased institutional aid.

Seven in 10 college graduates owe money, and the average amount is $29,400. But many NEA members owe much more. At the conference last week, California Teachers Association-Student President John Belleci said he owes about $80,000. “We’re all taking out loans, and we’re all working, and it’s just choking us.”

The Widening Gap

There are a couple of things to know about college costs: First, while almost all colleges and universities advertise a “sticker price,” not many students actually pay that price. This week, a tool called the Tuition Tracker,” developed through an Education Writers Association partnership using federal data, debuted to show what students of varying incomes, at different institutions, really pay for college after deducting institutional aid and state or federal assistance.

Ohio Student Association members protest the student debt crisis.

Consider Kent State University, the public university Cecil attends. The sticker price is $24,120, but families with an income greater than $100,000 typically pay $21,918—or about one-fifth of their household income. Meanwhile the poorest students, those from families earning less than $30,000, each pay $15,736 on average or more than of half their annual income.

Making matters worse, the costs for poor students have increased dramatically over the past five years, while they’ve held more or less steady for the wealthiest Americans. This is true even at community colleges, which are considered relative bargains. For example, look at Lakeland Community College, also in Ohio. The net price for the wealthiest students was $10,499 last year, scantly more than the $10,136 they paid in 2008. Meanwhile, the amount paid by the very poorest students increased from $4,838 to $6,021.

Students have little choice but to borrow money to pay for their education, especially as state grants become scarcer. Last year, according to OSA, the budget for the Ohio College Opportunity Grant was cut from $352 million to $171 million in 2009. (Ohio funding to higher education overall fell 11 percent between 2008 and 2013.)

And Ohio isn’t the worst, by far. In Arizona, the costs borne by the poorest students have jumped 56 percent.  (State funding there fell by 27 percent during the same time, according to the NEA Almanac.)

“You can’t talk about student debt without talking about funding,” said Montaño. It’s obvious that as state legislators have cut funding to public colleges and universities, those institutions have either raised tuition or slashed programs and staff. What’s less obvious is that colleges and universities also are shifting their financial aid from lower to higher-income students, as they move away from need-based to “merit-based” awards. (Those recipients may or may not need the money, but certainly won’t turn it down…)

Making matters worse, some federal assistance programs—specifically tuition tax credits, tax-deductible savings plans, and the work-study program—are disproportionately accessed by wealthier Americans, according to a recent investigation by the Hechinger Report and Dallas Morning News, co-produced by the Education Writers Association.

Specifically, more than half of the federal tax deductions for tuition, fees, and exemptions for dependent students go to Americans earning more than $100,000 a year, even though that group constitutes only one-fifth of American households, Hechinger reports.

Of course, at current prices, it’s arguable how easily even a “rich” family with a household income of $100,000 could afford, say, the $57,148 annual price at the private George Washington University or even the $23,986 at the public University of Virginia.