Study finds U.S. ranks low on college affordability

It is the first study of college affordability and accessibility done across countries.

Cati Vanden Breul

Compared with other industrialized countries, the United States ranks poorly in affordability of higher education, according to a report released last week by the Educational Policy Institute.

The report measured the affordability and accessibility of higher education in 15 developed countries, many of which are European.

The United States was 13th in affordability but did better in accessibility, taking fourth place. Sweden was the most affordable, and the Netherlands were the most accessible.

Researchers used a variety of factors to measure affordability and accessibility, said Amy Cervenan, co-author of the report.

“For affordability, what we basically used were different indicators, such as living costs and education costs,” Cervenan said. “We also looked at net costs when you added in (financial) assistance like grants or loans.”

Four factors went into calculating accessibility, she said. For each country, researchers looked at the rate of participation in the system, how many people went on to graduate, differences in participation between high- and low-income students and gender equality. Cervenan said the data came from national databases and from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

She said the report offers evidence that affordability and accessibility are not always linked, but the report was not designed to answer that question.

“Overall, if there is a link or lack of link, we can’t really answer that right now. But we did them separately, because we had a suspicion there was not a direct link,” Cervenan said.

She said the United States is a “striking” example of the difference between affordability and accessibility because the size of the system makes it more accessible to students, but it’s still not as affordable.

Increasing tuition rates and decreasing federal support have contributed to a decline in affordability for college students in the United States, said Kris Wright, director of the University Office of Student Finance. She said students are not getting enough financial aid from the government to make up for higher costs.

“Grant aid has not kept pace with the increase of tuition, so it makes school less affordable,” Wright said.

Jenneke Oosterhoff, a senior lecturer in the department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, said all students in the Netherlands receive some basic financial aid. Students living at home receive 47 euros a month (approximately $61), and students who live away from home receive 228 euros per month (approximately $298).

But she said that is not a significant amount for students.

“This is relatively low, because that barely covers the cost of cheap student housing,” Oosterhoff said.

However, students can also apply for additional financial aid or take out loans to pay for their education.

Affordability and accessibility are generally better in the Netherlands than in the United States, she said.

“I think this country puts a huge burden on parents and their children to afford a good school,” Oosterhoff said. “Students have to put in way too many hours of work to finance their studies, and they sometimes have difficulty maintaining a healthy balance between schoolwork, job and social life.”

Cervenan said this is the first study of affordability and accessibility of higher education systems done across countries. The researchers said they hope to include more countries as more data becomes available and might decide to release an annual report.