While it’s true that around 85% of students receive financial aid at public, four-year institutions, that number offers a deceptively optimistic view of college affordability. The truth is, the amount of financial aid students receive is all over the place, and not always enough to put a dent in the rising costs of school.
Sadly, we do know one thing for sure: Historically, federal aid, state-based aid, and institutional aid haven’t been enough to prevent young people from taking out soul-crushing amounts of student debt to pay for school. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, seven in 10 college seniors graduated with student loan debt in 2014, with an average balance of $28,950. Further, the average debt at graduation rose at more than twice the rate of inflation from 2004 to 2014.
10 Worst States for College Affordability
The thing is, some states are better — or worse — than others when it comes to college affordability and the amount of debt students carry when they leave school. That’s right: If you want to graduate from college without paying down student loans for decades, where you live may matter more than you think.
We recently ranked the top 10 states for college affordability by comparing each state’s median wage (based on a 40-hour work week) with its average in-state tuition, as reported by the College Board. Now it’s time to look at the least affordable states for higher education. Here are the 10 worst states for college affordability in 2015:
10th Worst: Arizona
Median income: $34,237
Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $10,646
Average tuition as percent of median income: 31%
Number of public, four-year colleges: 8
Number of public community colleges: 21
During the last 11 years, the cost of tuition at public, four-year schools in Arizona has more than doubled. While tuition during the 2004-05 school year rang in at only $5,138, it now costs $10,646 for the same experience — and the consequences aren’t pretty.
At Arizona State University in downtown Phoenix, for example, 65% of students graduated with an average debt load of $22,498 in 2014. And at the University of Arizona, another public, four-year school, 52% of students left school with an average debt load of $22,761. No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of student debt for graduates who attend a state school and most likely received at least some federal or state financial aid.
9th Worst: Delaware
Median income: $37,502
Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $11,676
Average tuition as a percent of median income: 31.1%
Number of public, four-year colleges: 2
Number of public community colleges: 3
Delaware has few schools and its graduates leave college with high debt levels compared to students in surrounding states. At Delaware State University, for example, 89% of students graduated with an average debt load of $38,702 in 2014.
Sadly, the story isn’t much better at the state’s other public, four-year institution, the University of Delaware. At the state’s distinguished flagship school, 58% of graduates left school with average debt of $32,705 that year.
While Delaware residents earn higher-than-average median wages, it’s not enough to make up for the sticker price at the state’s two public schools. And at the end of the day, Delaware students have few in-state options when it comes to financing an affordable four-year degree.
8th Worst: Alabama
Median income: $30,846
Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $9,751
Average tuition as a percent of median income: 31.6%
Number of public, four-year colleges: 19
Number of public community colleges: 26
Although the state of Alabama offers fairly affordable housing and a low cost of living outside its large cities, the cost of attending one of its public state schools is staggering compared to area incomes. In fact, the average cost of college has almost doubled since the 2004-05 academic year, when average tuition was just $5,683 — and students are paying the price.
To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the big public schools in the state and how much debt students leave them with. At Alabama State University, for example, 90% of students left college with an average debt load of $32,639 in 2014. Further, 45% of students left the University of Alabama with an average debt load of $29,320 that year.
No matter which large public institution you look at, the story is mostly the same. In Alabama, student aid is simply not enough to make up for relatively low wages and relatively high college tuition costs.
7th Worst: New Jersey
Median income: $40,685
Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $13,303
Average tuition as a percent of median income: 32.6%
Number of public, four-year colleges: 13
Number of public community colleges: 19
Since New Jersey is already known for having a high cost of living, it shouldn’t surprise you that earning a college degree there doesn’t come cheaply. Despite the fact that the median income is higher than other states on this list, it simply isn’t enough to make up for the fact that the average public, four-year school charged $13,303 in tuition and fees for the 2015-16 academic year.
Sadly, New Jersey college graduates are paying heavily once they leave school. At popular Kean University, for example, 73% of students graduated with average debt of $32,886 in 2014. And at Montclair University, 71% of students left school with average debt of $28,070.
The story is similar at nearly all the state’s public schools, with average debt coming in over $25,000 for more than half of students at Ramapo College of New Jersey; Rowan University; Rutgers University of Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick; the College of New Jersey; and William Patterson University of New Jersey.
6th Worst: Michigan
Median income: $34,736
Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $11,991
Average tuition as a percent of median income: 34.5%
Number of public, four-year colleges: 18
Number of public community colleges: 31
When it comes to college affordability, the state of Michigan has a couple key factors working against it. First, the cost of college here has shot up during the last decade, rising from $7,931 for the 2004-05 academic year to $11,991 today. Second, wages and household incomes are lower than in the rest of the country. In 2013, the median household income in Michigan was only $48,411, compared to $53,046 nationally.
This double-whammy means students leave school with a lot of debt. At Central Michigan University, for example, 74% of 2014 graduates left school with $34,545 in debt. In the meantime, 73% of Michigan Technological University graduates entered adulthood with $36,041 in student loans that year.
Still, you could argue that in-state tuition at the state’s flagship college, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, is a relative bargain at $14,336, considering it’s ranked No. 29 in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
5th Worst: Illinois
Median income: $36,587
Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $13,189
Average tuition as a percent of median income: 36%
Number of public, four-year colleges: 12
Number of public community colleges: 48
Illinois students have several factors working against them when it comes to college affordability. First, Illinois has one of the highest tuition rates in the country, even after you factor in higher-than-average wages. Second, there are very few public colleges competing for such a large population of students.
Sadly, this economic combo has been costly for students. Even at public, four-year institutions, Illinois graduates leave school with record levels of student debt. Here are some of the worst in 2014: Eastern Michigan University, where 82% left school with average debt of $31,219, Illinois State University, where 65% left school with average debt of $30,373, and Northern Illinois University, where 77% left school with an average debt load of $33,234.
4th Worst: Pennsylvania
Median income: $35,630
Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $13,395
Average tuition as a percent of median income: 37.5%
Number of public, four-year colleges: 45
Number of public community colleges: 31
In Pennsylvania, the cost of college is downright expensive. Not only is in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions a staggering $13,395 on average, but even the tuition at two-year schools is a higher-than-average $4,927. That puts Pennsylvania in the top five most expensive states for four-year, public schools, and the top seven states for the cost of community college.
Sadly, expensive tuition for Pennsylvania students has meant huge sacrifices in the form of student loan debt. Even in the state’s large Pennsylvania State University system, 63% of students left school with an average debt load of $36,935 in 2014.
Photo: Pennsylvania State University