With steady tuition hikes outpacing income gains, college costs are placing a heavy financial burden on Massachusetts families, derailing many students' progress toward a degree, a new national survey has found.
Even with financial aid, poor and working-class families must spend nearly half their annual income to attend public four-year colleges, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's "Measuring Up 2008" report, which was released today.
Although the biennial study, considered a leading benchmark of higher education performance, painted a bleak picture of college costs, it showed that Massachusetts students are still graduating at a high rate compared with counterparts in other states.
Since 2000, the cost of public two-year schools in the state rose from 18 percent to 26 percent of family income, while the cost of four-year colleges climbed from 21 percent to 32 percent. Both figures are well above the national average.
Among the bottom 40 percent of Massachusetts earners, who make an average of $21,130 a year, college costs are especially onerous. A year of community college, for example, costs about $8,500 after financial aid, about 40 percent of their earnings. For students at four-year public colleges, the yearly cost of roughly $10,300 consumed about 50 percent of wages in that income bracket.
"We're seeing more students priced out," said Bob Giannino-Racine, executive director of ACCESS, a nonprofit in Boston that counsels students on financial aid. "We're seeing more students go to community college when they are ready for a four-year school and more students who can't stay in school because they have to work. They and their families just can't make it."
Finances also are making it harder for many students, particularly low-income and minorities, to continue their education, the report found.
Just 50 percent of community college students return for their second year, the study found, down from 59 percent in the early 1990s.
The percentage of Massachusetts college students who graduate each year has remained essentially unchanged since that time, the report found. Just 54 percent of the state's high school students enter college by age 19.
"We've known for a long time that affordability is a critical problem," said Paul Reville, the state's education secretary. "We've been falling behind in providing students financial aid, and we've got to make that ground up."
When judged by percentage of personal income, the state government is subsidizing its colleges and universities at the second-lowest rate in the country behind New Hampshire, the study found.
Reville said that despite the state's budget woes, officials remain committed to boosting spending on financial aid and reducing community college tuition in the next budget cycle.
"Now is not the time, given the financial pressures on students and families, to retreat one iota" on plans to reduce college costs, he said.
Despite the comparatively high costs, students in Massachusetts colleges are graduating at the nation's highest rate, with 68 percent of full-time college students earning degrees within six years. Among those 18 to 24 years old, 41 percent were enrolled in college last year, up from 29 percent in the early 1990s. Nationally, 34 percent in that age group were attending college.
Yet minorities continue to attend college at much lower rates than whites. Among young adults, 28 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of blacks are enrolled in college, compared with 49 percent of whites.
Judith Taylor, program director at Jobs for the Future, a consulting and advocacy group in Boston, said cost is one of many roadblocks for low-income students, including poor preparation, family responsibilities, and transportation barriers.
"The cost is only one factor, but it can be the straw that breaks the camel's back," she said.
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com.