Paying the Cost to Be the Boss: Tuition Rates, Pell Policy, and Postsecondary Access

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. As far as schools are concerned, this is no different. Although this may not be the case for government schools, private schools often have hidden or additional costs (hidden costs of schooling explained) on top of their school fees. 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.

All the People, Not Just Some

“We the People.” Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that’s how we might perfect our Union.

In his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama covered a range of important issues—from foreign relations to scientific and tech innovation to a call for respectful bipartisanship (yes, please!)—but the theme that resonated most for us on the State of the South blog was about economic trends that have made it increasing difficult for working and middle class families to get ahead:

All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs; even when the economy is growing. It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start their careers, tougher for workers to retire when they want to. And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.

This struggle for a fair shot has been particularly acute in the South, where even in our most economically dynamic places, people who grow up in low-income families are more likely to stay there as adults than almost anywhere else in the nation, and only small numbers make it to the middle- or upper-income levels. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, intergenerational mobility is lowest in the South, as shown by comparing outcomes for adult children who grew up in families with the same incomes but in different places. In the following chart, the 100 largest U.S. commuting zones are ranked by the estimated percentage gain or loss in income for an adult child from a low-income family, compared to the national average. One way to think of this is that there is a greater “penalty” for people who grew up in low-income families in some places than in others. At 95th, people from low-income families in Raleigh earn an estimated 13 percent less as adults than those born in a place with average mobility. Nine out of ten of the lowest ranked metros are in the South; in the highest ranked third of metros, only two Southern cities, both in Texas, make the cut:

CZ Future Income

The problem is not just that too few people have a chance to escape poverty; there are large numbers working and middle class Southerners who are economically insecure. When so many people are unable to find consistent work that pays reasonably well, our whole economy suffers: people cannot build savings and wealth through critical investments like homeownership. They cannot afford to go back to school and build skills for a new career in an emerging industry. They cannot save up to take a risk and start a business. And, critically, they cannot invest in educational and extracurricular enrichment for their children or save for their postsecondary education. For every generation that is not adequately prepared for economic success, the situation remains the same for their children.

Say a hardworking American loses his job — we shouldn’t just make sure that he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him. If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills. And even if he’s going from job to job, he should still be able to save for retirement and take his savings with him. That’s the way we make the new economy work better for everybody.

There are policies that can make supposedly “transitional” jobs in our economy quality jobs. Educational policies can support training with stackable credentials so people can move up the ladder from entry-level to a career. And, as President Obama said, there are policies that can support start-ups and small businesses and larger employers “who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers or their customers or their communities ends up being good for their shareholders.” But as important as good public policy is, it must be implemented through public and private systems and institutions—schools, colleges, social service agencies, and employers—that are often not working together to address barriers to economic security. Policy can provide direction and incentives for systems change, but changed outcomes at scale require changed systems.

This Washington Post story from Chico Harlan, demonstrates the massive systems failure —in access to and quality of transit, housing, education, and employment—for low-wealth people in the South. The story follows a woman in Atlanta who faces a two-hour journey on public transit to get to a job interview: sixty-nine stops on a bus; a nine-minute train ride; an additional 49 stops on a bus; a quarter-mile walk. All for what would have been a 27-minute drive. Harlan’s article reveals the additional barriers individuals face—those hardworking Americans mentioned above—when available housing and quality child care are far from job opportunities. Those barriers arise when systems—which may appear invisible to many of us, because they are working well enough for us—are not designed to achieve the outcomes we often say we want: a fair shot for everyone who is willing to put in the effort.

If you’d like to discuss your Southern mobility experience with the President, you can join a post-State of the Union interview today on YouTube at 2:15 ET. If you’d like to discuss mobility in the South with less presidential people like us, find us on Twitter and Facebook, #stateofthesouth.

Abby Parcell contributed to this post. 

Criminal Justice in the South

Today’s guest post on criminal justice comes to us from Abby Reimer, a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism and a business minor at Kenan-Flagler. Incarceration disrupts the educational trajectory of young people, and erects barriers to employment and economic security. While funding for public education is cut in the South, state corrections spending continues to rise, exacerbating the challenge for communities trying to address low mobility.


In October 2015, President Obama headed to Charleston, W. Va., to launch a “criminal justice tour,” a high-profile spotlight on criminal justice reform across the country. It is significant that the tour started in the South, where the problems of America’s criminal justice system-racial inequity, harsh sentencing laws, and overcrowded prisons-are most visible and entrenched. In recent years, Southern states have joined the increasingly bipartisan effort to address prison overcrowding, high costs, and prisoner reintegration.
Prisons in the US are overcrowded following the stringent laws. A criminal must be put behind bars, but persons caught for crimes as simple as a DUI might also face imprisonment for as long as ten days in the States. In DUI cases there may or may not be causalities. Not every drink and drive leads to accidents, but the probability of getting caught by the cops is higher due to various obvious signs such as rash driving. If a person is convicted of the same due to a high blood alcohol level (BAC), it is highly likely that they would have to get in touch with a Phoenix DUI lawyer or someone of similar caliber in their vicinity. This might save the person involved from a possible prison conviction.

The Landscape

Like the rest of the country, the South has seen a significant drop in both violent and property crime during the last 20 years. From 2013 to 2014, the South saw a 5.9 percent drop in property crime and a 3 percent drop in violent crime, a slightly smaller decrease than the rest of the country. While decreasing, the South has a long history of being the U.S.’s most violent region. In 2012, the South accounted for 40.9 percent of violent crimes in the country, while its population makes up 37.4 percent of the country.

Nationwide, the drop in crime has been attributed to a smattering of factors: aging populations, decreased alcohol consumption and up to the mid-1990s, increased incarceration.

African Americans, in the nation as a whole and in the South, are overrepresented in all parts of the criminal justice system, from traffic stops to incarceration. In Alabama, Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, more than 60 percent of those serving life sentences are black, a rate shared by only four Northern states.

The South also carries the distinction of having the largest prison population in the country, almost doubling the incarceration rate in the Northeast. Louisiana is the world’s “prison capital,” incarcerating 1 in 75 adults, the highest rate in the world. However, prison populations have declined slightly in Southern states during the past few years, even as prison populations have grown in northern and western states.

Changes in Prison Population (2011-2014)

Map 1

Source: Brennan Center for Justice


Criminal reform in tough-on-crime states

Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Alabama are policy leaders in reducing prison populations. The recent reforms show a path forward for conservative, traditionally “tough-on-crime” states to tackle criminal justice reform. Leaders in the state emphasized cost savings and “common-sense” reforms, while not addressing more politicized issues like racial inequity and the death penalty.

Mississippi, which still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, saw its prison population fall 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, with a 14 percent drop from 2013 to 2014 alone. The state passed a sweeping reform bill in April 2014, supported by a grant from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a partnership between the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trust to help research criminal justice reform. The bill shortened the sentences for many property and drug crimes and suggested new sentencing recommendations for officers. The state also increased supervision of parolees, increased the number of prisoners freed on parole and opened technical rehabilitation centers, which housed parolees who violated terms of their parole rather than sending them back to prison. Conservatives in the state emphasized the financial impact: $266 million in savings over the next decade.

South Carolina’s prison population has nearly tripled in the past 25 years, and state spending on prisons has increased almost 500 percent since 1983. Faced with a projected growth in prison population and a $27 million Department of Corrections deficit, South Carolina passed a reform bill in 2010. The bill shortened sentences for some non-violent crimes, ended mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession and expanded prison alternatives and parole. From 2011 to 2014, crime dropped 14 percent and the prison population dropped by 6 percent.

Texas faced similar financial pressures in the mid-2000s. Prison population growth showed no signs of slowing down, and would have required spending $500 million on new prisons in 2007. The state responded by appropriating $241 million to prison alternatives including drug courts and substance abuse and mental illness treatment programs. In 2011, the Texas legislature passed two bills that shortened probations if parolees completed treatment programs and reducing prison sentences if prisoners completed educational programs. Texas saw a 12 percent drop in crime from 2011-2012 and a 3 percent drop in prison population.

The Republican-controlled government emphasized savings and assured conservatives the state was still “tough on crime.” In March 2014, Republican Gov. Rick Perry spoke about criminal justice reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), assuring the crowd that criminal justice reform was a mainstream conservative strategy.

“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” Perry asked. “Shut prisons down. Save that money. Texas is still tough on crime. Don’t come to Texas if you want to kill somebody.”

Alabama is the most recent Southern state to tackle criminal justice reform. The state was faced with the same mix of budget constraints and booming prison populations, as well as lawsuits from The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Equal Justice Initiative contending that some state prisons did not meet constitutional standards. The Department of Justice backed up the claims, filing a report in 2014 that claimed that inmates at a women’s prison were subject to sexual abuse by male officers.

In May 2015, the state passed a Republican-sponsored bill that followed the strategy of Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi: reducing penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes, creating a new felony designation for some nonviolent offenses and prioritizing parole and parole supervision. Alabama also passed a bill expanding prison capacity. The reforms are estimated to save the state $380 million and reduce the prison population by 4,200 people.

The death penalty: part of the ‘Southern way of life’?

Southern states have been slower to change death penalty policy, which has largely become Southern in use. While the death penalty largely faded away from 1935-1972, the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia reinvigorated the death penalty as a “states’ rights” issue in the South, said Frank Baumgartner, who studies the death penalty and racial inequity in the criminal justice system at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 3.00.01 PM

Racial discrepancies in the death penalty still loom large. As of Jan. 1, 2014, 42 percent of defendants on death row were black and 43 percent were white, although blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. When the victim is a black male, the death penalty is rarely applied even when black men are the most common victims of homicide, Baumgartner said. A black man who kills a white woman is the most likely to be given the death penalty.

While death penalty reform or abolition hasn’t been backed by the same bipartisan push as prison or sentencing reform, there has been some movement on the issue, Baumgartner said. An upcoming Supreme Court case dealing with racial bias in juries may change the application of the death penalty, Baumgartner said. In North Carolina, for instance, of the 159 prisoners on death row, all-white juries sentenced 31 and another 38 had only one person of color on their juries.

“The death penalty has been politicized in the South to be part of the ‘Southern way of life,’ but it’s actually one of the ugliest reminders of the ‘Southern way of life,’ which is this great fear of the black man that might do something terrible to a white woman in the South,” Baumgartner said. “That fear is really strong, and politically powerful… It leads to an arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty really in a discriminatory manner, where some victims are more valuable than others.”

Crime and punishment looking forward

The South has long been a ‘tough on crime’ region with stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system. However, recent reforms in conservative states show an increasingly Republican-led push for lowering prison populations, changing sentencing laws and cutting costs. Bulging prison populations, drug law enforcement and high criminal-justice system costs will push more Southern states into reforms.

Across the Great Divide

If you’ve ever been a working student trying to make a living to support your family and your education, you’ve probably had moments where one unexpected challenge after another makes you feel that success is impossible. You don’t know how you’ll make it through the next crisis-your car breaking down or your doctor calling with troubling test results. You just can’t handle making one more choice between two bad options: like missing work or missing class when your boss knows your schedule but says they need you to come in, or waiting a few more days to buy your kid a backpack for school or risking your rent check bouncing.

The reason all of this feels so impossible, like the deck is stacked against you, is because it’s not just about you and your choices: it’s about the policies, institutional practices, and systems that make it harder for low-wealth people to get ahead. There are so many things out of your control that affect your path to success, like the scheduling system your employer uses, whether or not you are eligible for paid time off, the timing of courses offered by your college, the reliability of public transit, and the availability of financial aid. In most cases, wealth plays a significant role in the lives of individuals. Due to this, people tend to try various methods that can help them conserve money. As an example, when someone retires, their primary source of income may disappear. During this time, it is advised to cut out extra expenses and start saving more. Furthermore, downsizing your home is considered the most suitable solution because it allows you to live in a smaller house (you can learn more about this at Homelight) while renting your larger one. Similarly, saving money after retirement can be achieved through a variety of solutions.

And those of us who want to improve economic mobility, or to move people from economic stress to stability, need to understand that context when we design programs and policies. From my window today, I’m looking out at what could be considered a forest (a hedge, really, at the edge of a small woodland), but recent wind and rain have diminished the forest and left me with mostly trees. And since I’m looking for a metaphor for the importance of understanding the context of a system before adopting a programmatic solution, “missing the forest for the trees” came readily to mind, looking at these bare branches and chill blue sky. When it comes to how we shape responses to economic mobility issues-income inequality, school segregation, college completion-we often get so tied up in our focus on individual success (trees) that we lose sight of the impact of community systems of opportunity (forest).

The philosophy behind why you do the work and the current (and, often, the historical) context it’s happening in, matter. Here’s a great example of a philosophy that changes service delivery: LISC Financial Opportunity Centers. The FOCs-in communities across the country-employ an Integrated Services Model-that’s jargon for offering financial coaching and products (like IDAs to make saving more feasible), education and training, and income supports (like public benefits and tax credits) all in one place, in a sequenced flow that helps individuals move from financial stress to survival to stability:

Taken together, these three core services help move low- and moderate-income families along a continuum of improvements aimed at ultimately increasing their net income (monthly cash flow), credit score, long term job retention and net worth.

FOCs want interim milestones, but they are driven by a big end goal: net worth. And more of it for low-wealth families. At an FOC, they don’t stop at helping someone get emergency funds for utility payments to avoid eviction [TREE]. They don’t stop at providing training and support for a new better-paying job [STILL TREE]. They form a long-term relationship that helps their clients build wealth, like home ownership and retirement plans-because financial stability is the forest made up of all those really important trees. Out of all those trees, real estate seems to be the most fruitful tree that can generate income, especially at times when the financial condition of a human is tottering. Selling one of the few houses to Crawford Home Buyers ( or any similar firm may help people come out of those financial emergencies. Moreover, retired people with no regular income can earn considerable income from renting the property.

This long-range relationship and a programmatic orientation that moves from stress to survival to stability is key, especially when you consider the extreme disparities in financial stability and wealth creation in the United States. Recent data from the Pew Research Center reveal that the median net worth of for white households ($141,900) is 13 times that of African-American households and 10 times that of Hispanic households. (This staggering gap inspired CFED’s creation of the Racial Wealth Divide Project.) In Umbrellas Don’t Make it Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans , scholars from The New School, Duke Center for Social Equity, and Insight Center for Community Economic Development discuss how “an analysis of who holds America’s wealth makes clear how life outcomes can diverge radically, in particular for those subject to systemic historically rooted discrimination [FOREST], which is not related to the amount of personal effort exerted [TREE].” The analysis shows that neither income nor education is an equalizer when it comes to this wealth gap:

  • The wealth gap persists at every income level, and “white families at the lowest end of the income distribution have a higher median wealth than middle-income blacks”

    Umbrellas 2

    Source: Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain

  • The wealth gap also persists at every level of education, and “for families with household heads that have a college degree, the typical white household has $180,500 in wealth while the typical Black household has $23,400”
Umbrellas 1

Source: Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain

Less wealth mean less stability and more stress and struggle for black families, especially when it comes to investing in education, entrepreneurship, or retirement. As an example, if a person has invested a significant portion of wealth in homes, he or she can sell those assets to a seller like Chase Pays Cash (check out “We Buy Houses Alabama“) and arrange funds to come out of any grave financial crisis.

The authors recommend a possible intervention-Child Trust Accounts-that would be based on the wealth (not income) of their parents. It’s an example of an intervention that takes into account the history and context of the issue being addressed-a short-term action with a long-term view, like the philosophy at the Financial Opportunity Centers. If we want to see real movement toward more equitable economic outcomes, that’s the kind of growth we need to cultivate.

In Mississippi: Reaching for Adequate and Efficient Public Education for All

On Tuesday, Mississippi voters defeated Initiative 42, an amendment to the state constitution that would have forced the state to provide an “adequate and efficient” public education for all children. Specifically, the initiative tried to enforce the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), a funding formula that requires the state to fund school districts at adequate levels. Since 1997, school districts have only been funded twice at MAEP-required levels. Critics of the bill said Initiative 42 would have taken the funding allocation power away from legislators and given courts control over the funding process, allowing courts to move money away from “good schools” and “put it in other places.”

While Mississippi legislators are happy they still get to control public education funding, students are suffering. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Center, Mississippi ranks 50th in the nation in child well-being. In 2013, over a third of children there lived in poverty, a four percent increase since 2008. To further illustrate this point, almost three out of every four children in Mississippi are low-income, the highest rate in the nation.

Mississippi children are not showing up for kindergarten ready to learn—kindergarten that Mississippians fought so hard for. Research shows positive links between quality early childhood education and high school graduation rates. This research is fact in Mississippi: over half of Mississippi children do not attend preschool and 32 percent do not graduate high school on time.

National data show that students in low-income families are six times more likely to attend a high-poverty school—schools that are typically not “adequately” funded. Over the six-year period from 2008 to 2015, Mississippi decreased state funding by $623 per pupil. With the rejection of Initiative 42, will this downward trend in funding continue or will Mississippi’s legislators use their power to ensure that all of Mississippi’s children have access to quality education? Mississippi’s education governor, William Winter, deserves the last word here:

Education will always be an issue. The quality of education of our people is still going to leave a lot to be desired. Regardless of how far we go, we still have so much further to go [because] education, adequate education, is more important now than it ever has been because there are very few things people can do now without having a basic framework of education. When I was growing up, there would be good jobs for people who couldn’t even sign their name. But now you can’t have a satisfying, satisfactory life unless you have a good education. The key now lies, it seems to me, in doing whatever it takes to reduce that number of people who, for whatever reason, have never been able to acquire that education. The poorest schools are in the areas that are in need of the best schools. So our willingness to invest more of our resources in education I think is a political priority.