The Myth of College Affordability (The Problem Isn’t What You Think It Is)

and If you find yourself reading something that starts with a panicky freak out about crazy high college prices that make college unaffordable, STOP. Put down your tablet. Watch a kitten video. Do whatever you have to do to walk away. Why? Because everything after that sky-is-falling setup is based on a myth about college affordability.

How do we know that?

The Data

Check out the average actual prices that colleges charge here. Especially in the case of two-year institutions, or if one were to commute to college from home rather than live on campus, these average actual prices aren’t anything close to the sticker prices that get all the panicky headlines.

Even under pretty strict criteria, the most recent analysis from the National College Access Network (NCAN) found that about a quarter of four-year colleges and about half of two-year colleges were still affordable for the lowest of lower-income students.

In reality, college costs are like everything else:

  • Some colleges are affordable to most people.
  • Other colleges are affordable to some people.
  • A few colleges are only affordable to a few people.

The Fallacy

But here’s where the affordability myth starts to get legs. There’s no way to find out which colleges are affordable to which students. Students have to wait until the very end of their search process – long after they’ve focused their energy and application efforts on a tiny sliver of college options and eliminated thousands of possibilities – to find out the small set of actual prices offered by the institutions from which they will make their final college choice. In this context, it’s way too easy to confuse “all colleges are unaffordable to me” with “the colleges where I applied and got accepted are unaffordable to me.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are a whole bunch of things about college pricing that are messed up (textbook costs, for example). And there are definitely situations where we need to improve affordability for certain people in certain circumstances. But actual affordability across all of higher education isn’t nearly the problem that it gets made out to be.

Because we don’t really need every college to be affordable for everyone. We just need to have at least one affordable and accessible college option for everyone who wants to enroll.

Finding a Solution Starts with Identifying the Real Problem

Try figuring out which college or university is affordable for which kind of student. Then try starting your college search with a complete list of colleges that you know will fit your price range. In other words…

Try shopping by price.

Now you are staring at the real problem.

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