This article originally appeared at TalkPoverty.org.
“I’ve always wanted to go to college. I’ve wanted to be an orthodontist since I was seven,” said 16-year-old Kayla, not realizing that because she grew up in West Baltimore the odds of her dreams coming true were very slim.
There’s a long shadow cast over Baltimore’s children. Like young people across America, they know that the ability to get a good-paying job depends on college. As teens, many of them finish high school, fill out college applications, and complete financial aid forms. But then they find out the truth: college is unaffordable.
There is a lot of talk about elite universities offering “no loans” promises and sending letters to low-income families across the country urging their children to apply. But that effort is relevant to a tiny few. Most people who attend college go to institutions that are far from free.
Despite massive public investment in financial aid, students from families like Kayla’s who earn less than $20,000 a year are now required to pay at least $8,000 for a year of community college and more than $12,000 a year at a public university. That “net price” is what researchers like me have found to be the real bill that students and their families face after all grants (including the federal Pell and state and institutional grants) are subtracted from the sticker price of attending college. This price has gone up substantially over time, particularly since the Great Recession. It’s climbed as real family income for most has fallen. Worse, it may well be under-stated.
College education is central to the American Dream. But the ladder people must climb to get there has eroded, and a critical rung fell off. After a semester or two, even the most talented students from the bottom half of the income distribution find that the price of college is more than they can afford. They have enough money to register for classes, but they cannot pay the bills long enough to graduate.
The young people of Baltimore know this. Researchers tracked a set of the city’s children beginning in 1982, when the kids were in 1st grade. A decade and a half later, almost two-thirds enrolled in college. But by age 28, just 17 percent had earned an associates or bachelor’s degree, with another 13 percent earning a certificate. Nearly half who grew up poor, ended up poor, especially if they were black.