49 States Flunk College Affordability Test

California, the only state that passed in the study, scraped by with a C minus.

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A new ranking of college affordability gives 49 of the 50 states F's. But while there's no doubt that college has gotten painfully expensive, a closer look at the data behind the numbers shows there are still some educational bargains out there.

For example, the report showed that students in Tennessee pay, on average, the least for a year of college—just 13 percent of their families' income, according to "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education," the study released today by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. In some cases, of course, students get what they pay for. Some of the low-cost schools don't perform well on standard measures such as graduation rates and consequently are not highly rated in U.S. News's "America's Best Colleges" rankings. But parents in states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina have the opportunity to send their children to highly ranked public universities without beggaring themselves.

Families in many states, however, are facing painfully high bills. The average cost of a year at a public university in Pennsylvania is a nation-leading 41 percent of family income, for example. Some of the expensive states, such as Michigan, offer top-ranked colleges. Unfortunately, some states, such as Maine, Montana, and Rhode Island, are comparatively pricey (after considering local wages and financial aid) but do not appear at the top of U.S. News rankings.

John Diamond, spokesman for the University of Maine system, said Maine's colleges are comparatively expensive because the state is trying to provide lots of campuses for its rural and spread-out population. And he noted that Maine graduates give their alma mater high grades in surveys.

James Boyle, president of the College Parents of America, argued that "an education is what you make of it" and said that students who work hard at any college can earn a degree that will get them noticed by employers.

The "Measuring Up" report gave only one passing grade for affordability: California got a C minus. That may surprise sticker-shocked Californians who are facing prices of more than $23,000 for many University of California campuses. But Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said that the state's community colleges are the best educational bargain in the country. Even students who get no aid at all are charged just a few hundred dollars for a full semester's worth of classes.

That was the only bright spot Callan saw for families concerned about college costs, however. "In terms of affordability, the whole country has gone south," he said. As recently as 2000, the center gave California and four other states A's. Only three states got F's that year.

Dramatic annual increases in tuition have far outpaced increases in financial aid since then. Callan warns that college could become even harder to afford as states prepare drastic actions to address looming budget deficits. Rhode Island, already one of the most expensive states, has announced it will raise tuition at state schools in January. Many low-cost California State University campuses have been so swamped that they have stopped taking applications for fall of 2009. They may also have to turn away qualified students next year because of lowered budgets.

Such moves will have "disastrous" long-term effects on the economy, Callan said. "We are socking it to families when people can least afford it" and thus discouraging students from pursuing education, he warned. Several other nations are graduating a higher percentage of their population and might be poised to overtake the United States' long-held lead in innovation, he added.

"The headline is that we are losing our international leadership," Callan said.