Many public colleges and universities expect their poorest students to pay a third, half or even more of their families' annual incomes each year for college, according to a new study.
With most American students enrolling in their states' public institutions in hopes of gaining affordable degrees, the new data shows the net price -- the full cost of attending college minus scholarships -- can be surprisingly high for families that make $30,000 a year or less.
The numbers track with larger national trends: the growing student-loan debt and decline in college completion among low-income students.
Because of the high net price, "these students are left with little choice but to take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return," Stephen Burd wrote in a recent report for the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan group that examines the effects of rising inequality and other trends.
The federal government has increased its spending on Pell grants for the neediest students. Still, the high net prices show that the grants go only so far.
Burd, a senior policy analyst for the foundation's education-policy program, looked at data that the U.S. Department of Education has required public and private colleges and universities to provide for the past few years. The latest average net-price figures are for the 2010-11 school year.
The net price and much more information about all colleges and universities nationwide is on the department's College Navigator website.
The foundation's report argued that many private colleges use their own scholarship money to bring in top students from more affluent families in order to boost their position in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings.
"While the problem is not as extreme among public universities, it is rapidly getting worse," the report noted.
At public institutions, the loss of state financial support and a rise in tuition play a big part in the trend of higher net prices, Burd said in an interview.
But Burd said school documents showed that "the drive for prestige is very strong as well."
WSU highest in state
Public four-year schools in Washington were in the middle of the pack nationally when it came to net costs for low-income students for the 2010-11 academic year. Federal data shows Washington State University had the highest net price at $9,810, while the University of Washington came in at the lowest at $6,128.
WSU officials contested statistics on file with the federal government on tuition and attendance costs earlier this year. They said the costs described on the College Scorecard promoted by President Obama didn't accurately reflect the cost to attend the university.
James R. Pratt, interim chancellor at WSU Tri-Cities. said the school does a lot to help students cover their cost to attend through federal Pell Grants and other financial aid.
"From WSU's perspective, if what you're awarded ... doesn't add up to the cost of tuition, the University has the Cougar Commitment, College Bound and other programs available to fill in the rest -- up to the cost of tuition, which will be $11,722 this coming year for a full-time resident undergraduate," Pratt said.
"Additionally, low-income students and their families qualify for federal loans that can be used to cover other college expenses like books, housing, food and transportation," Pratt said.
The Pennsylvania State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City were among the most expensive public schools in the country for low-income students. At Penn State, the net price for the lowest income group was $16,000 to $18,000 at schools in the statewide system; at UMKC, it was $16,798.
Highest prices at private schools
High net prices for the neediest students are most prominent at private nonprofit schools. Burd found that nearly two-thirds of the 479 private colleges and universities that he studied charged students from families that made $30,000 or less a net price of more than $15,000 a year.
The report used the University of Miami as an example of a private school that had shifted to more non-need-based aid to attract talented, and wealthier, students. Federal data shows that students whose families make $30,000 or less paid, on average, $21,415 after scholarships at the University of Miami.
"We agree that at the University of Miami we should strive to help our needy students attend college," spokeswoman Liz Amore said.
She said the school was shifting money from non-need-based, or "merit," aid to need-based aid and was raising money for scholarships for low-income students.
"I'm hoping this report shows the importance of the net price number," Burd said. "Because colleges, when they know a certain number is important, tend to work toward improving that number."
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver