Forbes: What one influential senator got wrong about college cost

'To claim that most people who want to attend college can afford to is unsupportable by the facts'

Contrary to Sen. Lamar Alexander's (R-Tennessee) argument that college is "within financial reach" for most students, higher education is unaffordable for many, Erik Sherman writes for Forbes.

Alexander—the Senate education committee chair—argued in last week's Wall Street Journal that higher education is not too expensive for the masses, and he also suggested five ways to improve access.

Ed committee chair: 'It's a myth' that college is unaffordable

However, Alexander failed to account for several other factors that raise the price of an education beyond the reach of many, writes Sherman.

1. College cost includes more than just tuition and fees, Sherman argues. While financial aid and Pell Grants may cover portions—or all—of those expenses, students must also pay for room and board, books, computers, and other study materials.

Average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year schools in the last academic year was $9,139, but room and board cost an additional $9,804.

How public universities can close socio-economic graduation gaps

2. Aid money is not as readily available as it may seem. The average Pell Grant for a bachelor's degree at such a school covered just 18% of that cost. For out-of-state students who pay higher tuitions, it drops to 15%.

Pell Grants for students attending private four-year institutions cover less than 10% of the average costs, according to Sherman.

In 1975, Pell Grants could cover about 67% of college cost. In 2012, it amounted to only 27%. 

And while state aid can help as well, the amount of need-based funds are much lower than they appear. Alexander mentions $11.2 billion given out by states in 2013, but just $7.06 billion was need-based, and $5 billion was concentrated in eight states. The other 42 states awarded just $2.04 billion in need-based grants.

"The notion that there are pools of money waiting for the needy college student is not held up by fact," says Sherman.

3. Elite schools may aid low-income students, but most applicants will be rejected from schools such as Georgetown University, Princeton University, or Stanford University.

4. Student loans are not comparable to new car loans. While Alexander notes that an education is a better investment than an automobile, Sherman points out most new cars are not bought by recent graduates. And car loans apply to the car—not the people who take them out.

"Should the graduate run into major trouble, discharging a student loan even through bankruptcy is far more difficult than discharging any other sort of loan," he says.

Eight-nine percent of recent high school graduates from households in the top income quartile go to college. That figure is just 62% for household in the bottom quartile.

"To claim that most people who want to attend college can afford to is unsupportable by the facts," Sherman writes (Sherman, Forbes, 7/8).

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