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After receiving her diploma, Raquel Laws, of Ellicott City, reacts to cheers from her family during the Howard Community College Forty-eighth Commencement. Tuition at Maryland community colleges is now free.
After receiving her diploma, Raquel Laws, of Ellicott City, reacts to cheers from her family during the Howard Community College Forty-eighth Commencement. Tuition at Maryland community colleges is now free. (KAREN JACKSON / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Education is no longer the ultimate equalizer in this country it was a generation ago thanks to the exorbitant cost to attend college. Everyone suffocating under the load of student debt can testify to that. Not even public universities are affordable for many families, particularly those with meager means.

A recent report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that low-income families can’t afford most of the country’s flagship state universities, including the University of Maryland College Park. Not only is tuition too expensive, states aren’t investing as much in aid, and students whose families can afford to pay are getting a larger piece of the financial aid pie.

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Just six out of 50 flagship schools the institute examined had an affordable price tag for low-income students. The gap in affordability can be staggering. At some schools, low-income students would have to take out loans or find some other means to pay for $80,000 in educational costs. At that price, those students would be paying back loans into middle age, if not longer. And that leaves little left for graduate school or other advance studies.

The result is we risk falling deeper into a society of haves and have nots, a topic that has become a lightning rod in the presidential campaign as talk from some candidates has turned to further taxing the country’s billionaires. The sticker shock of pursuing a college education can lead to students dropping out of school before they can get a degree, or worse, some of the brightest low income students will skip college altogether convinced they could never pay for it. That’s a massive loss of brain power to the country. Think of all the young people we could be turning into engineers rather than fast food workers.

That’s not to say low-income students have been totally shut out of college opportunities. Other doors have opened up for low-income students, so there are options. Maryland and other states now offer free tuition at community colleges, which will ease a good chunk of the financial burden. A recent Pew Research Center analysis found that the increase of low-income students has been most striking at public, two-year colleges and “less selective” four year colleges, with fewer resources. More selective four-year colleges tend to enroll students from more financially stable and wealthier families.

Even with the expanded community college pipeline, that doesn’t mean the affordability problem at flagship public institutions does not need fixing. We don’t want our state schools becoming elite institutions, but rather to remain accessible to people of all backgrounds. And students should have more options for where they want to attend.

The Institution for Higher Education lays out some solutions to addressing this issue that we can get behind. For one, financial aid packages should be designed to include money for expenses other than tuition, such as living costs. Too many low income students become overburdened with basic necessities such as food and housing. Even free tuition doesn’t help students whose families struggle to get a daily meal.

Aid should also be prioritized so that it goes to people who actually need it. At 34 flagships, the state or university provided financial aid to “typical high income students” from households that earned more than $167,000 a year. Students with means should pay their way.

Other research has found that low-income students may be missing out on financial-aid opportunities that they simply don’t know about. Wealthier families are better able to identify tax breaks and other incentives to offset tuition costs even if they don’t really need the help. More could be done to help better inform the families of low income students.

State legislators across the country also need to rethink their approach to education and increase appropriations to colleges and stop raising tuition. The report found that since 2000, enrollment has jumped nearly 30% at college and universities throughout the country and appropriations just 6%. The money has to come from somewhere to educate those additional students. That means increasing tuition or accepting more students who can pay, and leaving low income students out.

Flagship universities can do better. They need to get back in the business of acting like public institutions and less like their private, elite counterparts. Education can still be a path to economic mobility, but people need access to that path. Right now, fewer and fewer low-income students have that. That is not acceptable.

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