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When applying to colleges, students are commonly told to include a “safety school” to ensure they are accepted to at least one institution. For low-income students, such as those who receive advising from college access programs like members of the National College Access Network, they also need a different type of a safety school: a financial one to which they are not only accepted but also are reasonably sure they can afford.

As parents’ concerns about college costs surpass even their worries about having enough money for retirement, whether an affordable college option exists -- particularly for low-income students -- is a crucial question. To answer it, NCAN designed an affordability measure to see whether a low-income student can reasonably expect to successfully piece together all of the possible sources for funding a four-year degree in today’s public higher education system.

Why, specifically, a four-year degree? Because it’s the surest path to the middle class for low-income students and students of color. And why examine public institutions in particular? Because they were founded to serve all students in their state. Their missions are based on ensuring access. At the very least, low-income students need a single affordable college option.

But unfortunately, only 25 percent of public, four-year residential institutions are affordable for the average first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipient who is working in a minimum-wage job. This percentage plummets to approximately 10 percent when examining public flagship institutions.

This measure of affordability is detailed in NCAN’s new white paper, “Shutting Low-Income Students Out of Public Four-Year Higher Education.” It weighs the cost of attendance at an institution -- plus $300 to cover emergency expenses -- against students’ average total grant aid from federal, state and institutional resources; the institution’s average federal loan amount; the average Pell Grant recipient’s expected family contribution; and an approximation of students’ earnings from part-time work while in school and full-time summer work. Combining all of these aid sources -- which requires an adept navigation of the financial aid system -- still does not allow students to afford 412 of the 551 (75 percent) residential public four-year institutions in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

This was not always the case, and NCAN members are seeing the impact of the shift in the field.

“When I started in this work in 2004, I could confidently say that if we did our jobs right and our students did their work as well, then paying for college wasn’t a barrier to their success,” Traci Kirtley, chief program officer at College Possible, told NCAN. “That’s no longer true today. Even if students do everything right, many in 2018 are finding that they still can’t afford to pursue a college degree.”

This is a significant equity issue for our country. It’s also a timely one, as policy makers question whether college is “for everyone” and promote shorter-term programs whose outcomes are typically less beneficial. High-income students are already more than four times more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than are low-income students -- 60 percent versus 14 percent, respectively. Additionally, low-income students are almost twice as likely as their high-income peers to obtain a postsecondary certificate or associate degree.

Sub-baccalaureate degrees and credentials are valuable, but the concentration of low-income students in these programs is surely a sign that students do not have equitable choices when picking their career paths. As the definition of postsecondary education expands, it’s important that low-income students -- like their higher-income peers -- retain the option to choose their postsecondary and professional paths based on skills and interests, not finances alone.

This reality of college affordability should not be acceptable to either our federal or state policy makers. It should serve as a wake-up call that policies meant to improve our nation’s higher education system must address all pathways, thereby helping low-income students pursue a four-year degree should they desire one.

Solutions to college affordability must address multifaceted issues: the complexity of the system, affordability at the access point to all pathways -- especially the four-year degree -- and the debt burden of those who can afford to enroll in the first place. Policy makers and advocates must increase their focus on a cohesive plan to address college affordability. Without a holistic approach, the share of low-income students completing four-year degrees will remain inequitable as they continue to lack at least one viable, affordable college option.

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