The Surprisingly High Cost of Our Public Flagship Universities — At Least for Most Americans

Make $167,000 a year? Then you can afford your state’s public flagship university. Otherwise …

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The Search for the Affordable Public Flagship

Talking about college affordability can be tricky. Families have different financial lives. Students go to different types of institutions and get charged a seemingly infinite variety of prices.

This month a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy took another swing at the question by focusing on whether America’s 50 flagship public universities are affordable for low- and middle-income students (Spoiler: they’re not). We linked to it in last week’s newsletter but I thought it was worth digging into more.

Here are three things that jumped out to me reading the report and talking with Mamie Voight, the vice president of policy research at IHEP:

It matters where you live in America — a lot.

Our state-based system has great advantages but, boy, does it lead to a crazy range of prices that Americans are charged to go to pretty similar institutions.

Take Ava, one of the student personas IHEP created for the report. She’s the middle-income student, coming from a family who earns $62,000 a year. These are five most expensive and five least expensive public flagships for her. Over four years, the price difference between Penn State and UVa would be more than $100,000.

Hypothetical Ava who lives in Michigan could go to Ann Arbor for three years for the price her doppelgänger in Connecticut would spend for just one year at UConn.

“The variation across states is really telling,” Voight told me. “It shows what states can do if they prioritize serving low-income students.”

Some flagships have Pell Grant stats that would embarrass even a small private college.

The low number of Pell Grant students at selective private institutions has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the last decade. And we’ve seen some places (e.g., Vassar, Amherst) work to raise their number.

What’s drawn less attention is the Pell percentage at some of the top public universities. The number at the University of Colorado and the University of Vermont, for instance, is the same as at Harvard and Dartmouth Universities (all 15 percent).

To be fair, 15 percent at Colorado is a much larger number of students than at Dartmouth. But in a nation where more than 1 in 3 undergrads get a Pell Grant, having fewer than 1 in 6 at the flagship is striking.

Many states charge middle-income families nearly the same price as families earning far more.

IHEP’s middle-income student — Ava — lives at home, has a younger sibling and comes from a family earning $62,000. The federal government says her expected family contribution for college is $5,757.

Maria, the high-income persona, also lives at home and also has a younger sibling, but her family earns $100,000 more each year — a total of $167,387. The government says her expected contribution is about $22,000.

At a few flagships — UVa, Berkeley, Minnesota, Michigan — Ava gets a substantially lower price: $15,000 to $24,000 less a year.

But at more than 20 flagships, the prices for Ava and Maria are nearly identical. In Mississippi, for instance, Maria would be charged $24,926 — just over her federal expected family contribution. And Ava, with a fraction of the family income, must pay $23,881, about four times as much as her expected family contribution.

The IHEP report makes several recommendations for institutions and state leaders, among them:

  • Award state and institutional aid based on financial need.
  • Create aid programs that cover the full cost of college, not just tuition.
  • Restore and increase state appropriations to all public institutions.

You can explore the data at the IHEP website.

— Scott Smallwood

Americans Think Higher Ed Needs to Change

Wanting to understand more about Americans’ perceptions — including their cynicism — about higher ed, New America has been surveying people every year for the past three years. This year’s results, released this week, reveal a lot of worry about student debt and a lot of desire for change.

Only half of the people surveyed say they think an education after high school is affordable. Just one-third say they think higher education is fine the way it is. Most Americans also believe that, while more education creates better opportunities, there are many well-paying, stable jobs to be had with no more than a high-school diploma or GED.

At the same time, Americans express a lot of support for the promise of higher ed, too. Most say it provides a good return on investment and that it offers pathways for upward economic mobility. They want federal and state governments to spend more money on making it affordable. They value a range of educational pathways, including apprenticeships and technical degrees. And they think highly of the campuses in their back yard: four out of five say they feel positively about their local colleges and universities.

Spotlight

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What College Admissions Offices Really Want

Paul Tough, the author of a new book, “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us,” lays out the structural problems he sees getting in colleges’ way of building more socioeconomically diverse classes.

One issue: Universities face great pressure to protect both their status and their revenues. Those goals, Tough says, often limit how many low-income students colleges accept, becoming a barrier to opportunity:

“Enrollment managers know there is no shortage of deserving low-income students applying to good colleges,” Tough writes. “They know this because they regularly reject them — not because they don’t want to admit these students, but because they can’t afford to.”

In many ways, Tough’s book presents a pessimistic view of higher ed as an increasingly unfair system. But in several interviews, he expresses optimism, hopeful that people will be moved to make things better and inspired by the transformative power of college in the lives of some of the students he met.

Read more here:

  • In an interview with Chalkbeat, Tough discusses what colleges should do better and whether higher ed’s sink-or-swim ethos may be changing.
  • In a conversation with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tough elaborates on what he learned from the memorable students in his book.
  • Here’s what the College Board has to say in response to “The Years That Matter Most.”

‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence

Brandon Ambrosino, a Liberty University graduate, interviewed more than two dozen current and former Liberty officials for this story. Those sources, Ambrosino writes, described “how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains.” (Politico)

These Lawsuits Could Reshape Higher Ed

Education Dive is tracking legal cases — on affirmative action, free speech, immigration, Greek life, and Title IX — that could have big implications for colleges.

We Must Save Independent Student Newsrooms

A journalism dean and a media-law professor at the University of Florida write that student-run newsrooms are an “incomparable civic bargain.” And, especially as local news diminishes, these student journalists, the authors say, make an “increasingly vital contribution to the community’s information needs.” (Inside Higher Ed)

‘Ripped From the Headlines’

Two desperate mothers … involved in a nationwide scandal. Fake SATs. Fake sports. It’s the Varsity Blues college admissions bribery scandal, distilled and dramatized into a Lifetime made-for-TV movie.

Watch this trailer — complete with screams, handcuffs, and a not-so-subtle exchange about Darwin — to get a sense of what we’re in for when this “inspired by true events” feature hits our screens next month.

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