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Safety Net of Community College Is Fraying, According to New Report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education

CONTACT: Kat Stein at 215-898-9642 or

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

PHILADELPHIA – A generation of strivers is being priced out of the most affordable rung of the higher education ladder, suggests a new report from the Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. The report examines the fraying of the community college safety net, and calls for states to address these challenges more directly.

“Higher education affordability was a major topic in the presidential election, and millennials, who are feeling the effects of high tuition, are not going away,” says Executive Director Joni Finney. “To create jobs and move our economy, our workers must have access to affordable education. This report provides insight into some of the questions and obstacles states must face in order to strengthen their community college systems. These systems form the backbone of the nation’s affordable higher education system.”

The analyses are drawn from College Affordability Diagnosis: A National Report and the state-by-state data released by IRHE this past spring. College Affordability Diagnosis is a project of the IRHE at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, and the Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose, California. Notably:

  • 28 states enroll at least a third of their students in community college, with California enrolling 64 percent.
  • The percent of family income required to cover the cost of attending community college has increased in recent years.
  • In a majority of states, a student would have to work over 20 hours a week in order to cover the cost of enrolling as a full-time student.
  • Many of the nation’s states with the poorest populations perform poorly on community college affordability – contributing to those states’ cycles of poverty.
  • Of the ten states projected to have the most high school graduates by 2028 (representing 54% of projected high school graduates in the nation), five rank in the bottom half of all states on community college affordability.
  • The notion that community colleges serve as a more affordable postsecondary education option in states with expensive 4-year colleges is no longer true. Many states have both expensive community colleges and expensive public 4-year colleges.


Institute for Research in Higher Education at Penn GSE

The Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE), headquartered at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, conducts research relevant to policymakers and educational practitioners on higher education. Founded over 30 years ago, IRHE’s unique examinations of the policy forces that shape higher education, as well as the Institute’s ability to publish and disseminate new understandings of the impact of these forces, are widely respected nationally.