Think your college is affordable for middle-class students? You'd be surprised.

Even relatively wealthy students have limited options without loans

It's been well-documented that low-income students face financial challenges at college, even if they have financial aid.

But a recent study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) reveals something you may not know: low-income students aren't alone.

According to the study, middle-income students also struggle to afford the vast majority of colleges. Even with student loans, college options may still be surprisingly limited by finances.

For the purpose of the study, IHEP used the Lumina Foundation's benchmark for affordability. Schools qualify as affordable for a student if the school's net price—that is, the cost after subtracting grants and scholarships—could be paid when:

  1. The student works ten hours per week throughout the school year; and
  2. The student's family has saved up 10% of disposable income for 10 years.

The study assumed any family with an income under $50,000 would not be able to save disposable income.

Using the benchmark, IHEP looked at net prices for families earning various levels of income—including the median income, which is $72,000—at more than 2,000 colleges nationwide. The results of the IHEP study were staggering.

Students from families earning $69,000 can only afford:

  • 26% of schools when they take out loans; and
  • 5% of schools when they don't take out loans.

Students from families earning roughly $36,000 can only afford:

  • 19% of schools when they take out loans; and
  • 2% of schools when they don't take out loans.

How students feel about affordability, in their own words

And while these striking statistics would suggest that a full range of college options is a luxury available exclusively to the upper class, the IHEP study found that even relatively wealthy students can't afford as many colleges as you might expect.

Students from families earning $105,405 are:

  • Unable to afford 36% of schools when they take out loans; and
  • Unable to afford 59% of schools when they don't take out loans. 

Students from families earning roughly $163,000 are:

  • Unable to afford 5% of schools when they take out loans; and
  • Unable to afford 10% of schools when they don't take out loans.

The statistics were calculated under the assumption that all students would be accepted to attend all 2,000 of the schools assessed—which would be highly unlikely in the real world. Taking competitive acceptance rates into consideration, experts point out that the percentage of schools students could afford—and get into—would be even smaller.

40% of students who decline acceptance to their dream schools do so because of cost

Of course it is important to note that affordability is a complex issue—and cannot fall on the shoulders of the schools themselves to fix. Due to funding cuts and budget shortfalls, colleges often have no choice but to raise tuition to stay afloat. Expanding access to all students is goal for many schools—but they need the financial means to do so.

Writing for The Atlantic, Emily DeRuy argues that, "ultimately, if states invested more in higher education and colleges invested more in expanding access to students... everyone would benefit" (Clark, Money, 3/24; DeRuy, The Atlantic, 3/23;  IHEP Study, accessed 3/29). 

Help students and their families understand college costs and how to pay for them

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