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The Real Cost of College Keeps Going Up, But The Solution Stays the Same

The cost of college can be a barrier to many low-income students, and places it out of reach for many working adults. But a new analysis from the Urban Institute suggests the problem is more pronounced than many had projected, and that tuition is only part of the equation.

When you compare the increases in support for low-income students, like Pell Grants, against rising tuition, the costs seem like they may be manageable: the Urban Institute uses data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study to show that grant aid from all sources to low-income students at four-year institutions nearly doubled after adjusting for inflation over the last 30 years, mostly offsetting tuition increases. 

But that’s only looking at tuition. Once living expenses are factored in, “the data show the gap between the available financial aid for low-income students and the total cost of attendance has increased by much more than for tuition and fees alone.”

In practice, the cost of college attendance for low-income students has nearly doubled over the same period. For those who don’t have access to financial aid and grants, the cost has risen even faster.  

Equitable access to education is good both for individuals and for the total economy, and innovative new ideas and education models can be a key to taking down many of these barriers.

Calbright is one part of the broader changes necessary to alter the ever-more-expensive trajectory of higher education, currently offering all programs for free to adult Californians.  

Though many institutions offer online courses, a digital divide remains between those who have access to technology and those who do not, and technology costs add to the expense of the college experience. Calbright’s solution is to provide a lending library that ships laptops and wifi hotspots to students, for free, as long as they remain students.

Our experience is that the major barriers to college access among working adults are cost, time commitments, a lack of internet access, a lack of support (both academic and emotional), and the need to fit college around their lives, rather than fit their lives around college.  

Calbright’s model is designed to address all of these issues: our programs are flexibly paced and work around the student’s schedule; we free offer laptops and wifi hotspots to students who need them, and we have a “high touch” approach that makes sure students are surrounded by staff and faculty who are there to help them when they need it and offer encouragement along the way.  

But of all of the barriers to access, the cost of college is actually the one thing that can be completely fixed: Calbright is currently free to all Californians, and college can be made more affordable by increased student aid and grants. The cost of college is going up, but of all the problems that marginalized students have to access college, this is the one we know exactly how to solve. 

The other issues will take innovation and new models to address — and we’re working on that — but the cost simply takes a collective decision that everybody’s economic future is worth an investment. 

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