Where You Live Can Determine College Costs

If you're a parent in California, Illinois, Minnesota, Utah, or Virginia, here's some good news: The money you're investing for college will go a very long way.

Higher education is most affordable in those five states, according to a biennial nationwide study. The non-partisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education examined tuition rates, financial aid availability, and family income in all 50 states as part of its landmark "Measuring Up 2002" report.

Researchers gave each state a grade based on an equation that compared the cost of schools-minus financial aid-against family income levels. California was at the top, with an A and an all-around index score of 106. At the bottom, with an F and all-around score of 41, is Rhode Island. Hold up before you start packing your bags. The study is intended mainly to spur policy-makers to explore new ways to make higher education affordable in their home states.

Affordability was just one portion of the study, which also examined completion and participation rates, civic benefits of higher education, and more. Though California got the top overall score, that doesn't mean it excelled in every category. In fact, Utah appears to offer parents the least expensive higher education choices. Tuition minus student aid at public and private four-year universities requires 16 and 21 percent, respectively, of family income. That's less than any other state.

Minnesota, Utah, and Virginia have the cheapest community colleges, which require just 16 percent of family income.

Most expensive designation went to Vermont for public four-year colleges, which eat up 38 percent of family income; to Louisiana for private four-year schools (83 percent of family income); and New York for community colleges, which require 30 percent of family income. On affordability, Illinois provides aid to low-income students at 132 percent of federal Pell Grant aid, while Alaska, Georgia, South Dakota, and Wyoming provide none. Reliance on loans was lowest in North Dakota, where the average loan is $2,776 annually. Highest was in Delaware, at $4,039.

Key Scores from the Study

Most affordable public schools (Amount of family income required to attend, including financial aid):
  • Utah: 16 percent
  • Oklahoma: 17 percent
  • Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin: 18 percent
  • Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky: 19 percent

Most affordable private schools:

  • Utah: 21 percent
  • North Dakota: 27 percent
  • Alaska: 32 percent
  • Michigan: 38 percent

Highest level of financial aid (compared as a percentage of federal aid):

  • Illinois: 132 percent
  • Pennsylvania: 111 percent
  • Minnesota: 108 percent
  • New Jersey: 106 percent

Lowest average student loan per year:

  • North Dakota: $2,776
  • Mississippi: $2,858
  • Wyoming: $2,973
  • Kentucky: $2,987

Least affordable private schools:

  • Louisiana: 83 percent
  • Rhode Island: 81 percent
  • Massachusetts, New York: 77 percent
  • New Mexico: 75 percent
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