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COLLEGE TUITION COSTS RISING: Undergrads Drained by Debt

"The whole financing system seems to be shifting in ways that may reduce opportunities for students with the least ability to pay."

Today, more high school students than ever before hope to go to college and earn a degree, but high tuition costs and lack of financial aid has forced many undergraduates, especially lower-income students, to choose between their studies and work. Far too often, students choose to work during college to avoid a huge debt after graduation. While such a decision reduces students’ chances of graduating, many have no other choice if they want to fulfill their dream of a college degree.

Family Income

Tuition at four-year public colleges has increased 28 percent since 1990, but the median family income has increased by only 11 percent. Today, tuition and fees represent 16 percent of a middle-income family’s budget and 60 percent of a low-income family’s. A study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education concluded that tuition at four-year public schools rose faster than family income in 41 states. Meanwhile, tuition at two-year community and technical schools, formerly a more affordable option, rose at a faster rate than family income in 24 states.

Grants, Loans, and Debt

In the recent economic downturn states have cut higher education funding, forcing public schools to raise tuition. Federal Pell grants, created in 1972 to aid low-income students, covered a maximum of 77 percent of college costs in 1979, but in 2000-01 that figure is only 40 percent. To cover costs, students took out $37 billion in federal student loans in 2000-01.

The median loan debt for low-income students at public four-year colleges has skyrocketed. In 2000, students graduating from families earning $30,000 or less averaged $14,199 in debt — compared to $7,187 in 1993. This problem figures to only worsen as the college student population rises 20 percent in the next decade, with most of the increase from low-income and minority students.


With three-quarters of students working and one–quarter working full time, students are making choices with consequences contrary to their goals of obtaining a degree. One-third of students working 15 hours or more a week drop out, compared to 16 percent for those who work less, and nearly half of part time students leave school compared to 16 percent of full timers, according to the American Council on Education.

“The whole financing system seems to be shifting in ways that may reduce opportunities for students with the least ability to pay,” said Lawrence E. Gladieux, former executive director of policy analysis for the College Board.

See EdWeek‘s “College Students Strain to Cover Rising Tuition at Public Institutions.”
See the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s June 9 article “College Dreams Slipping Away.”

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