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Study Flunks 49 States in College Affordability

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Associated Press: An independent report on American higher education flunks all but one state when it comes to affordability -- an embarrassing verdict that is unlikely to improve as the economy contracts.

The biennial study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which evaluates how well higher education is serving the public, handed out Fs for affordability to 49 states, up from 43 two years ago. Only California received a passing grade in the category, a C, thanks to its relatively inexpensive community colleges.

The report card uses a range of measurements to give states grades, from A to F, on the performance of their public and private colleges. The affordability grade is based on how much of the average family's income it costs to go to college.

Almost everywhere, that figure is up, according to the survey. Only two states -- New York and Tennessee -- have made even minimal improvements since 2000, but they're still considered to be failing. Everywhere else, families must fork over a greater percentage of their income to pay for college. In Illinois, the average cost attending a public four-year college has jumped from 19 percent of family's income in 1999-2000 to 35 percent in 2007-2008, and in Pennsylvania, from 29 percent to 41 percent.

Low-income families have been hardest hit. Nationally, enrollment at a local public college costs families in the top fifth of income just 9 percent of their earnings, while families from the bottom fifth pay 55 percent -- up from 39 percent in 1999-2000.

And that's after accounting for financial aid, which is increasingly being used to lure high-achieving students who boost a school's reputation, but who don't need help to go to college.

The problem seems likely to worsen as the economy does, said Patrick Callan, the center's president.

Historically during downturns, "states make disproportionate cuts in higher education and, in return for the colleges taking them gracefully, allow them to raise tuition," Callan said. "If we handle this recession like we've handled others, we will see that this gets worse."

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