Why Sen. Lamar Alexander is wrong about college affordability

The top Senator in charge of higher education policy is on a campaign to convince policymakers, the news media and the general public that college is eminently affordable, even for the most financially needy students and their families.

“It is never easy to pay for college, but it is easier than many think and it is unfair and untrue to make students think they can’t afford college,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said at a hearing he held in June about college affordability.


But when it comes to low-income students, Alexander, who heads up the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, is just plain wrong. The Senator’s argument is misleading because he only takes into account the tuition that students pay, leaving out a range of related costs and living expenses. These include room and board, textbooks, transportation, and other education-related expenses.

The lowest-income students face far bigger financial hurdles than Alexander acknowledges. To pay for college, these students are often left with little choice but to take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of earning degrees, such as working full time while enrolled or taking time off until they can afford to return to school.


Community colleges

In his comments at the Senate hearing and in a column he wrote in July for The Wall Street Journal, Alexander begins his discussion by arguing that public community colleges “are free or nearly free for low-income students.”

“Nationally, community college tuition and fees average $3,300 per year, according to the College Board,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “The annual federal Pell Grant for these students—which does not have to be paid back—also averages $3,300.”


In reality, the vast majority of low-income students at community colleges have a considerable amount of “unmet financial need,” which is the difference between the full cost of attendance and the amount of financial aid that students receive. The average annual cost of attendance for low-income community college students who live off campus is $16,090, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

In a report it released in June, CLASP, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of low-income individuals, analyzed Education Department data and found that 97 percent of traditional-aged college students from the lowest-income families attending a community college full time have “unmet need,” averaging nearly $7,000 per year. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the lowest-income older students attending community colleges have “unmet need,” averaging nearly $8,000.

While community colleges are often the most affordable option for low-income students, they certainly aren’t free.


Public four-year colleges

Over the last decade, states have significantly reduced their investment in public universities. As a result, many institutions have substantially increased their prices. Despite these trends, Sen. Alexander says that “for most students, four years at a public university is affordable and these include some of the best colleges and universities in the world.”

In his Wall Street Journal column, he uses the example of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where annual in-state tuition and fees totaled $11,876 in 2014-15. He says that low-income students can cover most of the costs with Pell Grants and the generous state grants that Tennessee provides.


Once again, he doesn’t include related costs and living expenses. According to the Education Department, the total cost of attendance averages about $22,000 per year for in-state students who live on campus at public universities. At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the average cost of attendance for these students is about $29,000 annually.


Last September, I wrote a report, entitled Undermining Pell Volume II, which examined Education Department data showing the “net price”—the average cost after all grant and scholarship aid is deducted from the list price—for low-income students at more than 1,400 four-year colleges in the 2011-12 academic year. I found that about 40 percent of the 598 public four-year colleges I examined charged the lowest-income students, those from families earning $30,000 or less, an average net price over $10,000 that year. These schools expect the neediest students to pay an amount that equals at least one-third of their families’ yearly earnings.

Sen. Alexander’s claims become even more ludicrous when he talks about private nonprofit four-year colleges and for-profit higher education institutions.


Private four-year colleges

Alexander argues that despite their high sticker prices, private nonprofit colleges are generally affordable to low-income students because of generous financial aid packages.

As an example, he cites Georgetown University, which he said requires financially needy students to borrow $17,000 over four years and work up to 15 hours a week in its work-study program. “Georgetown pays the remainder—at a total cost of about $100 million a year.” At the hearing, he noted that some of the most elite private universities in the country, such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale, “are even more generous.”

Sen. Alexander is right that some of the most prestigious and wealthiest private colleges in the country are extremely generous with their financial aid and are fairly affordable for low-income students. Such institutions are also few and far between.


In Undermining Pell Volume II, I found that only 43 private colleges, or 5 percent of the 828 private nonprofit institutions that I examined, charged students with annual family incomes of $30,000 or less an average net price under $10,000 per year in 2011-12. More than two-thirds of the schools charged these students an average net price over $15,000. About a quarter of the institutions left students on the hook for more than $20,000.

Certainly, a substantial number of private colleges have small endowments, making it extremely difficult for them to provide adequate support to those students with the greatest need. However, many private colleges that have the means to enroll a significant share of Pell Grant recipients and charge them a low price choose not to do so. Instead, they use their institutional aid as a competitive weapon to attract the students they desire, rather than to meet the financial need of their students. In other words, they are using their resources to provide “merit” aid to wealthier students—whose higher test scores and ability to pay most of the tuition tab are attractive to institutions—rather than giving need-based aid to low-income students.


For-profit colleges

Even worse, Alexander implied at the hearing that for-profit colleges are affordable to low-income students. It’s true that their sticker prices are lower than those of private nonprofit colleges. However, the net price they charge the lowest-income students is often as high as, if not higher than, those at private colleges because they generally do not offer institutional financial aid.


Soon after I completed Undermining Pell Volume II, I examined 2011-12 average net price data for schools owned by publicly traded for-profit higher education companies. I found that 97 percent of the 603 schools I examined charged students with annual family incomes of $30,000 or less an average net price over $15,000, and more than half of the institutions charged over $20,000.


The average net prices that for-profit colleges charged the lowest-income students differed from company to company, ranging from $17,524 at Career Education Corporation schools to $22,797 at institutions owned by DeVry Education Group. Other companies that charged the highest average net prices included Education Management Corporation ($22,706), ITT Educational Services ($21,983), and the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges ($21,200).

It’s not surprising, then, that students leave for-profit colleges deep in debt. According to an analysis that The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) conducted of Education Department data, 88 percent of for-profit college students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2012 left with loan debt, averaging about $40,000 per borrower. In comparison, 77 percent of all students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2012 left with debt, averaging about $29,000 per student.

Given these figures, the notion that for-profit colleges are an affordable option for low-income students is laughable.


No matter how much Sen. Alexander wants to sugarcoat it, there is a college-cost crisis in this country, particularly for students from low-income families. It’s unfortunate that the Senate’s top higher-education policymaker fails to recognize that.