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Affordable options for college students are disappearing fast

The converging trends of falling state investment, rising tuition, and stagnant incomes has finally pushed higher education out of the grasp of low- and middle-income Americans, even at community colleges, a new report contends.

College is less affordable now, when adjusted for inflation, than it was before the economic downturn, student financial aid no longer is enough to fill the gap, and low- and middle-income families already are having trouble making ends meet just to cover living expenses, the report said.

Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast

“If you’re making $10,000 to $30,000 a year, and you need 10 percent to 15 percent of family income to attend community college, it’s just not going to happen,” said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of the study.

The cost of living in general and of college in particular has increased for many low- and middle-income families while wages have largely stagnated over the past few decades, and per-student state investment in public education continues to lag pre-recession levels, the report said.

Even at community colleges, most full-time, low-income students would need to work more than 20 hours a week to afford their educations—a workload experts say makes it all but impossible for them to successfully complete a degree.

Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite, new figures show

The result is that far fewer low- and middle-income students will enroll in college at a time when the country has set a goal of producing more degree-holders to stay competitive with international economic rivals.

While policy leaders “talk passionately about wanting to level the playing field,” their funding commitments haven’t aligned with the goal of helping needy students, the study said. “Unless we make college affordable for people of all financial means, opportunity through higher education will be a false promise.”

Unlike other attempts to analyze college affordability, the report—a joint effort of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania—examined tuition and cost-of-living expenses, and compared those to the typical state and federal aid given to students who aren’t well off.

Between 2008 and 2013, the last period for which the information is available, 15 states lowered the full-time cost of attending community college. Four-year public universities became more affordable in six states.

But affordability across all types of colleges and universities declined in 45 states.

 Related: States moving college scholarship money away from the poor, to the wealthy and middle class

Families of students at four-year public universities and colleges in high-population states including Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania now pay the equivalent of 35 percent or more of their annual incomes to afford school. In Massachusetts and Virginia, the family of a typical student is charged the equivalent of 32 percent of its annual income.

Attending community colleges in many states accounts for around a fifth of students’ family incomes, on average.

Typical college expenses in 12 states are low enough so that community-college students could afford the cost of attendance by working 20 hours or less: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

“Where you grow up can determine your opportunities for higher education,” the authors write. “College costs, available aid, and institutional options vary dramatically by state, sometimes within the same region.”

Related: Government data single out schools where low-income students fare worst

Low-income and middle-class families are feeling the financial squeeze even before contending with tuition.

Federal data show that annual expenses already exceed annual incomes of families earning less than $50,000. Even households earning between $50,000 and $69,000 spend an average of 87 percent of their wages on typical purchases, making it hard to save for college.

“This has been happening slowly, over time, since the early 1990s,” Finney said in an interview. “When the state abdicates responsibility for public policies related to affordability, it disproportionately hurts low- and middle-income families.”

How to fix this is another question, particularly as universities warn of even deeper financial problems.

“Absent any kind of state and federal policy interventions, these trends will only escalate,” Finney said.

And while some states, such as Tennessee and California, have worked to keep tuition low—especially for community college students—tuition consumes only a third of what students have to pay. Fees, books, supplies, food, and housing add substantially to that.

Meanwhile, higher-income families have come to enjoy increased proportions of states’ financial aid.

While the amount of need-based state financial aid for students at four-year public universities and colleges has barely budged between 1996 and 2012, state financial aid for high-income students at those institutions jumped 450 percent, the report said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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