Public flagships unaffordable for most students, report finds

Public flagship universities are widely considered to be “among the best deals in higher education”—they often offer students more resources, better research opportunities, higher graduation rates, stronger alumni networks, and better post-graduation outcomes than other public institutions. However, most flagship universities are not fulfilling their promise to support social mobility, according to a new analysis indicating that many flagships are simply not affordable for low-income students.

Just six of 50 state flagships considered affordable

For the new report, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) used nationally representative data to create five fictional profiles of low-, middle-, and high-income students. The researchers then estimated whether those students’ families could cover the cost of college if they were “setting aside 10 percent of discretionary income for 10 years, with the student working 10 hours per week while enrolled,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

The report found that nearly all 50 public flagships studied were affordable for the wealthiest students from families earning more than $167,000 annually, while just six were affordable for low-income students. Only at those universities, The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, “did lower-income students have access to enough scholarships and grants to cover attendance costs.”

Less-affordable institutions, meanwhile, may be focused on closing funding gaps by increasing tuition, recruiting out-of-state students able and willing to pay more, and awarding aid to higher-income students in hopes of boosting prestige. “The decisions that leaders are making in terms of spending really comes down to prioritization of different values and different priorities,” said Mamie Voight, vice president for policy research at IHEP and a co-author of the report.

Call to increase access for low-income students

IHEP offers several policy recommendations to address access and affordability gaps at public flagships, urging institutions to award state and institutional aid based on student need and design aid programs that cover all unmet need for low-income students.

IHEP points to efforts like Carolina Covenant program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, one of the six “affordable” flagships identified in its report. Through the Covenant program, UNC commits to meeting the full financial need of students from families whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the poverty line. The program—supported by philanthropic donations, as well as state and federal aid—covers not only tuition but also room and board, books, health care services, and academic and personal support programming. “The campus is very committed to its public nature,” Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid told Inside Higher Ed. “Our campus would be worse off without these students.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

How can colleges better support students living ‘in poverty’s long shadow’?

When low-income college students come to campus, they often bring family and community responsibilities with them. Drawing on his own experiences, Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack calls on administrators to recognize and better support students shouldering that stress.