We’ve all seen data that show education pays:

  • Median earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients working full time is $56,000–$21,000 more than the median earnings for high school graduates
  • Over 10 percent of high school graduates age 25 and older live in a household that relies on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, compared to 2 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree
  • Employers provided health insurance to 55 percent of full-time workers with high school diplomas, 69 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees, and 73 percent of those with advanced degrees.
  • Educational attainment increases a person’s chances at economic mobility. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 10 percent of children born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution who get a four-year college degree remain in that quintile as adults, compared to 47 percent of those without a four-year degree.

But we also know that education costs—and these costs keep going up. On average, national tuition and fees for four-year institutions have gone up 40 percent over the last ten years. Tuition increases are also the norm for community colleges, with a near 30 percent average increase over the same time period. Southern institutions are no different than the rest of the nation: Louisiana’s two-year and four-year institutions had the highest average increases over the last five years, at 64 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

Five-Year Change in Inflation-Adjusted Tuition and Fees (2011-12 to 2015-16)

2-year Institutions 4-year Institutions
Alabama 15% 21%
Arkansas 23% 14%
Florida 6% 15%
Georgia 19% 31%
Kentucky 9% 16%
Louisiana 64% 52%
Mississippi 11% 23%
North Carolina 19% 20%
South Carolina 20% 7%
Tennessee 17% 30%
Texas 16% 8%
Virginia 22% 23%
West Virginia 38% 25%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Our Southern flagship institutions are a part of this trend, too, making our most well-known state public universities less affordable for many students and their families.

2015-16 Tuition and Fees and Five-Year Change for Flagship Universities

2015-16 Tuition and Fees 5-Year Change (2011-12 to 2015-16)
University of Alabama $10,170 18%
University of Arkansas $8,522 15%
University of Florida $6,381 16%
University of Georgia $11,622 45%
University of Kentucky $10,936 16%
Louisiana State University $8,827 40%
University of Mississippi $7,444 25%
University of North Carolina $8,591 18%
University of South Carolina $11,482 7%
University of Tennessee $12,436 54%
University of Texas $9,830 -5%
University of Virginia $14,468 24%
University of West Virginia $7,632 29%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Colleges are quick to point out that students do not actually pay the sticker price; most students receive some type of financial aid (scholarships, grants, or loans). For low-income students, that financial aid may come in the form of Pell grants. The Federal Pell Grant program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students. For the 2015-16 academic year, the maximum Pell grant award is $5,730 and the average Pell grant award is $3,693. Except for the University of Florida, the average Pell award wouldn’t cover even half the costs for our Southern flagship institutions, making the possibility of attending these colleges unrealistic for some students. And while tuition costs are increasing, the Pell grant award isn’t. The maximum Pell grant award has decreased by $335 over the past five years.

For the 2013-14 academic year, there were nearly 8.7 million Pell recipients. Over 7 million of those Pell recipients came from families with incomes of $40,000 or less. Across the South, there were over 2.8 million Pell recipients, accounting for over $10 million in expenditures for Southern public, private, and proprietary institutions.

Pell has been considered the great equalizer in college affordability for low-income students. And the Obama administration is trying to make sure more students have access to an affordable education while also attempting to increase college completion rates. Last week, the Administration introduced two new proposals:

  1. Pell for Accelerated Completion would allow students to use Pell grants in the summer, making the program year-round. With the cost of tuition and fees, most students exhaust their Pell eligibility within the fall and spring semesters. This change would help students complete degrees faster by covering some of the costs of summer coursework. This program would add $1,915 to the Pell award for nearly 700,000 students.
  2. On-Track Pell Bonus would raise the maximum Pell grant award by $300 for students who take 15 credits per semester for the academic year. This initiative would help over 2.3 million students.

The US Department of Education press release states:

Today the Administration is calling for significant new investments in the federal Pell Grant program—the cornerstone of college affordability. The two new Pell proposals will help students to accelerate progress towards their degrees by attending school year-round and encourage students to take more credits per term, increasing their likelihood of on-time completion. In fiscal year 2017, these changes would mean an additional $2 billion in Pell Grants for students working toward their degrees.

The Obama administration faces an uphill battle in getting these proposals through Congress. But it is these types of innovative policy changes that could make a difference in postsecondary access and success for low-income students. As we move through this election cycle, pay attention to how presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional candidates talk about postsecondary costs and accessibility. It could make a difference for millions of Americans.