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Study flunks 49 states in college affordability

Justin Pope

An independent report on American higher education flunks all but one state when it comes to affordability — an embarrassing verdict that is unlikely to improve as the economy contracts.

The biennial study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which evaluates how well higher education is serving the public, handed out “F”s for affordability to 49 states, up from 43 two years ago. Only California received a passing grade in the category, a “C,” thanks to its relatively inexpensive community colleges.

Wisconsin got its best grade, an “A-,” in the category measuring how many students completed their bachelor’s degree within six years. Fifty-eight percent of students in Wisconsin met that mark. However, only 33 percent of African American students graduate in that time, compared with 60 percent of white students.

Wisconsin received a “B” in preparation, a “C+” in participation and a “C” in benefits offered. It got a failing grade in affordability — as did all states but California.

Since 1991, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college in Wisconsin has increased from 33 percent to 38 percent, which exceeds the national average of 34 percent. However, few working adults are enrolled in college: only 5.4 percent, which is just shy of the national average.

The report card uses a range of measurements to give states grades, from “A” to “F,” on the performance of their public and private colleges. The affordability grade is based on how much of the average family’s income it costs to go to college.

Almost everywhere, that figure is up, according to the survey. Only two states — New York and Tennessee — have made even minimal improvements since 2000, but they’re still considered to be failing. Everywhere else, families must fork over a greater percentage of their income to pay for college. In Illinois, the average cost attending a public four-year college has jumped from 19 percent of family’s income in 1999-2000 to 35 percent in 2007-2008, and in Pennsylvania, from 29 percent to 41 percent.

Low-income families have been hardest hit. Nationally, enrollment at a local public college costs families in the top fifth of income just 9 percent of their earnings, while families from the bottom fifth pay 55 percent — up from 39 percent in 1999-2000.

And that’s after accounting for financial aid, which is increasingly being used to lure high-achieving students who boost a school’s reputation, but who don’t need help to go to college.

The problem seems likely to worsen as the economy does, said Patrick Callan, the center’s president.

Historically during downturns, “states make disproportionate cuts in higher education and, in return for the colleges taking them gracefully, allow them to raise tuition,” Callan said. “If we handle this recession like we’ve handled others, we will see that this gets worse.”

States fared modestly better in other categories such as participation, where no state failed and about half the states earned “A”s or “B”s — comparable to the report two years ago. One reason for the uptick is that more students are taking rigorous college-prep courses, the study found. In Texas, for instance, the percentage of high schoolers taking at least one upper-level science course has nearly tripled from 20 percent to 56 percent.

But better preparation for college hasn’t translated into better enrollment or completion, with only two states — Arizona and Iowa — receiving an “A” for participation in higher education.

And the discrepancy in enrollment between states is still great. Forty-four percent of young Iowans are in college, while just 18 percent of their counterparts in Alaska — one of three states to get an “F” in the category — are enrolled.

Callan said the United States is at best standing still while other countries pass it in areas like college enrollment and completion. And as higher education fails to keep up with population growth, the specter lurks of new generations less educated than their Baby Boomer predecessors.

“The educational strength of the American population is in the group that’s about to retire,” Callan said. “In the rest of the world it’s the group that’s gone to college since 1990.”

(Associated Press)