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Marketplace

What does ‘college affordability’ mean?

Aaron Schrank Apr 4, 2017
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Forty years ago, a student at a four-year public college could work a basic part-time job plus a summer gig and mostly cover tuition and living costs.

“That’s really not reasonable anymore,” said Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “Both because of rising prices and because the minimum wage has fallen in real terms.”

Students doing the same work today will only make one-third of what they need. Working during college is one of the many college affordability factors explored in an online resource released today by the Urban Institute. 

The project aims to help students and parents from various backgrounds and income levels decipher what affordability means when it comes to college.

It’s about much more than sticker price. The website compares room and board costs around the country, examines the pros and cons of borrowing for school, and points out another factor driving up the price tag: 30 percent of students now take six years or more to graduate. 

“If you had finished in four years, you wouldn’t have to pay tuition, but you could also go out and get a job that takes advantage of a bachelor’s degree,” Baum said. “If you’re still in school, you lose those earnings.”

Whatever it costs you, William and Mary professor David Feldman said what happens after college may make the expense worthwhile.

“People with a college degree now earn more than double what somebody without a college degree earns,” Feldman said. “Back when I was in high school, it was only 45 percent more.”

And today’s students are going to need it to pay back all those student loans. 

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