These Four States Make All the Others Look Bad on College Affordability

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By Sarah Lovenheim

This month, we released report cards grading states on their budget support for public higher education. While most states struggle to make their public colleges and universities affordable, four stand out as doing a better job than the others. Wyoming, New York, Alaska and Oklahoma all get A’s for their support of public higher education; more than 30 other states get F’s.

Ahead of many 2015 state legislative sessions starting this month, we pulled together data from a wide range of government and higher education sources to evaluate the impact of state disinvestment in higher education across the country. What we found, for the most part, was appalling.

From 2007 to 2013, tuition at four-year public colleges increased by 37 percent, or three times the rate of inflation. As college becomes more costly, so too has the nation’s student loan debt crisis. There’s $1.3 trillion piled high in student loan debt in the U.S. and few states are doing much to ease the cost burden of college for students or families. After all, three-quarters of all college students attend these public institutions.

Since higher education often drives financial success, this should concern us all.

We stacked all 50 states up against each other to compare average tuition, spending per student, burden on families, state aid to students and education as a spending priority, as well as how those metrics have changed since the Great Recession – and gave each state a set of grades, depending on performance.

Wyoming gets an “A” for three big reasons: it offers the greatest amount of money per college student ($16,474), its state tuition isn’t so costly, comparatively (its schools cost about half the national average). And Wyoming families are responsible for only 13 percent of the cost of college.

Yet Wyoming’s overall “A” grade doesn’t mean that anyone considering a higher education should jump up and move to the state.

Wyoming doesn’t get bragging rights for how it prioritizes higher education or provides financial aid – it gets an “F in both of these categories. It fails to provide grants to low-income students, and it spends just 5 percent of its budget on higher education.

We also shouldn’t bow down to New York, an “A-“ grade state. The Empire State gets high markings for heavily investing in state aid for students, relative to other states. It ranks above most for spending per student, too. But tuition is high — it has increased 22 percent since the Great Recession – and New York isn’t prioritizing higher education as effectively as other states today, which earns it lower grades and a composite of an “A-.”

Alaska and Oklahoma have mixed report cards, too, but they also make the “A-list” team.

Alaska gets an “A” for spending per student (it spends the second highest amount per student), for the cost burden of college placed on students and families, who are expected to cover just 28 percent of the price tag and because tuition as a share of state median income is relatively low. But Alaska has room for improvement, too. The state’s doing very little to help low-income students, giving an average of less than $200 for low-income students.

Oklahoma‘s another overall top letter grade state, with some caveats, too. The state spent more than 22 percent of its budget on higher education in 2013 (only four states spent a greater share of their budgets) and puts nearly 10 percent of its higher education towards helping students afford college with financial aid. Yet while tuition is lower on average, more money is allocated per student than in most other states, both of these metrics have dropped since the Great Recession.

We have a long way to go as a country if even our top rated states struggle to meet all benchmarks that help us measure college affordability. But new legislative sessions, and budgetary debates that will follow, mark a new opportunity to make the case for state reinvestment in higher education — and pointing to these metrics is a good way to start.

Take a look at the complete list of state grades, and find background on our methodology here to understand how each category was score.

Final Grades - Working Table Working Table

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