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Questions and Answers

How should policy makers use College Affordability Diagnosis? 

This report is a diagnosis of how affordable higher education is for students of differing economic means at different types of colleges and universities in the state. The diagnosis is important because state policy makers are in a unique position—and have a unique responsibility—to think about higher education as a whole and how they use their postsecondary institutions to provide affordable higher education in order to increase opportunity for their residents. 

State policy makers should use this information to begin or continue a statewide dialogue on how affordable postsecondary education institutions are for the residents of their state. Affordability is one policy strategy for improving educational attainment and close gaps in college attainment between groups within the state. States undoubtedly have additional information that may not be comparable across states—and so is not included in this report—but that may contribute to policy makers’ understanding of college affordability.

What is ranked in College Affordability Diagnosis?

Each state is given a ranking from 1 to 50. The lower the ranking on this measure, the better a state performs on college affordability. In addition to the overall ranking, each type of college or university (public two-year, public four-year nondoctoral, public research, private four-year nondoctoral, and private research) is ranked compared to other states. Three states (GA, OK, TN) have a relatively large sector of technical colleges. These institutions are not ranked separately; instead, their ranking is integrated into the public two-year college ranking in each state.

What explains the overall ranking of college affordability in the states? 

The college affordability ranking for the state depends on the average net price (or educational expenses) of higher education for students at different income levels across all institutions in the state compared with family incomes. First, the average net price for students at a given income level is calculated across all postsecondary institutions in the state—this average is weighted by enrollment, so the institutions with the highest enrollments count the most. Second, the percent of income required to pay for college expenses is calculated for each family income level in the state. Finally, an average percent of family income to pay the net price is calculated for the state as a whole—this average is also weighted, but this time by family income, so the net price as a percent of income reflects the number of families in each income group. For additional information, please see the College Affordability Diagnosis Technical Report

How is college affordability defined in College Affordability Diagnosis?

We define affordability as the relationship of the total costs to students and families to attend higher education relative to family income. The net price includes tuition, room/board and mandatory fees, less all financial aid (federal, state and institutional) as a percent of family income that would be required to enroll in postsecondary education. Throughout this report, the terms net price and educational expenses for students and families are used interchangeably. Affordability varies for families of differing income levels within a state. Affordability in this report is not based on “what the market can bear,” the tuition of comparison or peer institutions, or what other states charge their residents. None of these approaches address the central definition of college affordability—that is, what students and families in a state are able to pay, given their economic circumstances, to attend postsecondary education.

Where does the data come from used in the rankings?

The federal government requires every institution of higher education to report to the federal government information on the net price of attendance for families at different income levels. This net price includes tuition plus cost of attendance (room/board, books, mandatory fees) minus all financial aid received—including federal and state aid plus any grants given by the colleges themselves. Cost of attendance is based on the living arrangements that students typically use at a given campus, including living on or off campus. 

Income data used in the college affordability ranking is from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) to measure family income. The ACS provides reliable data for any geographical grouping larger than 50,000 people. The ACS defines a family as a set of related individuals living together in the same residence (by contrast, a household is ALL individuals who live in the same residence). We do not limit our definition to a certain family size. We use family as opposed to individual or household income as families pay for higher education most of the time. 

We calculate average family income in each state across five groups: $0–30,000, $30,001–$48,000, $48,001–$75,000, $75,001–$110,000, and $110,001 or more. The family income groups used are established by the US Department of Education to ensure uniform reporting of net price measures. They are roughly equivalent to national-level income quintiles, but they are not the same as family income quintiles in different states that would be calculated using ACS data. In addition, each state profile in College Affordability Diagnosis shows the percent of families in the state that fall into each of the income quintiles—this information also comes from ACS.

How were colleges and universities classified into each group?

The type of degrees awarded guided the classification of institutions into different categories. For more information on this process see College Affordability Diagnosis Technical Report. For a list of institutions classified into each category by state see the state-by-state listResearch institutions are defined as those that award at least 10 doctoral degrees in three different areas. All other four-year institutions are classified as nondoctoral. Two-year colleges are those that award most of their degrees at the associate’s level or below.

Does this report address the affordability of the for-profit sector? 

No. The data for these institutions is incomplete and problematic, leading to difficulties in comparing states. However, some states monitor this sector of higher education, and states should consider the affordability of these institutions in providing higher education to state residents.

In addition to the ranked data, what other data are used in College Affordability Diagnosis?

Each state report shows the number of hours that students in the third income quintile would have to work earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 in order to pay the total cost of attendance at each type of institution in the state.

State affordability profiles also show state investment in need-based financial aid and financial aid given for reasons other than financial need at both public and private institutions. States can compare their commitment to financial aid to other states or to the national average.

Each state report shows how much students would have to borrow, on average, to attend a particular type of college or university in each state. The report provides these data on a per-annual basis. Providing only the total debt of college graduates understates student borrowing, as it does not take into account those who borrow but do not complete certificates or degrees.

Finally, the state report provides important contextual data to help states think about their populations’ projected workforce needs, the changing population demographics, levels of educational attainment, the educational pipeline in high school, and the levels of poverty among children.

What happens if data are missing for a state?

When information is not available, we use NA or “not available.”

How can I find out more about College Affordability Diagnosis  or my state’s ranking?

Explore the website.