What is Giving Compass?
We connect donors to learning resources and ways to support community-led solutions. Learn more about us.
As these headlines indicate, it is easy to say that college is “unaffordable.” But we must think carefully about what that means. We might base the amount students can reasonably pay for college on their families’ annual income less necessary expenses.
The complexity of the issue precludes any simple answers as to whether or not college is affordable. To think carefully about the question, we need to know what students are paying for and how they are paying for it, not just simple averages or aggregate figures. A new Urban Institute website brings together information on the prices of different college paths and the resources that institutions, governments, and students from different backgrounds draw on to cover their expenses, providing insight into how people pay and how much it is reasonable for them to pay.
Rather than simply comparing prices with incomes, we should focus on measuring the amounts students actually pay for different educational opportunities and the full range of options students have for financing their education. If one option requires an increasing portion of a student’s present and future resources, that option is becoming more difficult to afford. It is unreasonable to draw a firm line between what is affordable for a student and what is not, as personal preferences and priorities will determine whether the student is willing and able to make the necessary sacrifice or trade-off between present and future consumption opportunities. But we might be able to define what people in different circumstances would have to give up to pay for postsecondary education.