7 States Where Too Many People Can’t Afford to Go to College

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Once upon a time, it may have been possible to work your way through college. Combine a full-time summer gig waiting tables or working as a lifeguard with a few hours behind the desk at the school library or tending bar during the school year, and you could cover your tuition costs and maybe pay your rent too. Those days are long gone, as anyone who’s taken a look at current college costs knows. Now, there’s even more proof that most students and families can’t afford higher education unless they take out loans.

In many states, working 40 hours a week at minimum wage would still leave students unable to cover their tuition and other expenses at a four-year college, according to a report from The Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Community colleges are cheaper, but even at these more modestly priced institutions students usually need to work at least 20 hours a week, and sometimes much more, to cover all their expenses.

Parents are also stretched thin. In states like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Illinois, they would need to contribute more than 30% of their annual income to college costs if they wanted their child to graduate debt-free, the 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis found. For low- and middle-income parents, the cost burden is often much higher.

Faced with high costs, students have a few unappealing options: “They can take fewer credits — which will lower the price for a given term. They can work more to be able to cover the increases in college expenses. Or they can borrow more money,” William Doyle, co-author of the report and an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, wrote. The first two make it less likely that they’ll actually complete their degree, research shows, while the third saddles them with debt.

“This study shows how the deck is stacked against low- and middle-income Americans when it comes to paying for college,” Joni Finney, another of the report’s authors, said in a statement. “Without policy changes, the data point toward a problem that will only worsen. That paints a bleak picture for millions of Americans.”

The affordability problem exists at colleges across the United States, from two-year schools to private research universities, according to the report. (Affordability was defined as the total costs — minus financial aid — of attending college relative to a family’s income.) But it is much more acute in some states than others. These seven states have the least affordable colleges and universities in the country.

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