Updated on 12.18.15

10 Worst States for College Affordability

Based on in-state tuition rates and median wages, it can be particularly challenging to afford college in these states.

While it’s true that around 85% of students receive financial aid at public, four-year institutions, that number offers a deceptively optimistic view of college affordability. The truth is, the amount of financial aid students receive is all over the place, and not always enough to put a dent in the rising costs of school.

Sadly, we do know one thing for sure: Historically, federal aid, state-based aid, and institutional aid haven’t been enough to prevent young people from taking out soul-crushing amounts of student debt to pay for school. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, seven in 10 college seniors graduated with student loan debt in 2014, with an average balance of $28,950. Further, the average debt at graduation rose at more than twice the rate of inflation from 2004 to 2014.

10 Worst States for College Affordability

The thing is, some states are better — or worse — than others when it comes to college affordability and the amount of debt students carry when they leave school. That’s right: If you want to graduate from college without paying down student loans for decades, where you live may matter more than you think.

We recently ranked the top 10 states for college affordability by comparing each state’s median wage (based on a 40-hour work week) with its average in-state tuition, as reported by the College Board. Now it’s time to look at the least affordable states for higher education. Here are the 10 worst states for college affordability in 2015:

10th Worst: Arizona

  • Median income: $34,237
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $10,646
  • Average tuition as percent of median income: 31%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 8
  • Number of public community colleges: 21

During the last 11 years, the cost of tuition at public, four-year schools in Arizona has more than doubled. While tuition during the 2004-05 school year rang in at only $5,138, it now costs $10,646 for the same experience — and the consequences aren’t pretty.

At Arizona State University in downtown Phoenix, for example, 65% of students graduated with an average debt load of $22,498 in 2014. And at the University of Arizona, another public, four-year school, 52% of students left school with an average debt load of $22,761. No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of student debt for graduates who attend a state school and most likely received at least some federal or state financial aid.

9th Worst: Delaware

  • Median income: $37,502
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $11,676
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 31.1%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 2
  • Number of public community colleges: 3

Delaware has few schools and its graduates leave college with high debt levels compared to students in surrounding states. At Delaware State University, for example, 89% of students graduated with an average debt load of $38,702 in 2014.

Sadly, the story isn’t much better at the state’s other public, four-year institution, the University of Delaware. At the state’s distinguished flagship school, 58% of graduates left school with average debt of $32,705 that year.

While Delaware residents earn higher-than-average median wages, it’s not enough to make up for the sticker price at the state’s two public schools. And at the end of the day, Delaware students have few in-state options when it comes to financing an affordable four-year degree.

8th Worst: Alabama

  • Median income: $30,846
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $9,751
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 31.6%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 19
  • Number of public community colleges: 26

Although the state of Alabama offers fairly affordable housing and a low cost of living outside its large cities, the cost of attending one of its public state schools is staggering compared to area incomes. In fact, the average cost of college has almost doubled since the 2004-05 academic year, when average tuition was just $5,683 — and students are paying the price.

To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the big public schools in the state and how much debt students leave them with. At Alabama State University, for example, 90% of students left college with an average debt load of $32,639 in 2014. Further, 45% of students left the University of Alabama with an average debt load of $29,320 that year.

No matter which large public institution you look at, the story is mostly the same. In Alabama, student aid is simply not enough to make up for relatively low wages and relatively high college tuition costs.

7th Worst: New Jersey

  • Median income: $40,685
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $13,303
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 32.6%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 13
  • Number of public community colleges: 19

Since New Jersey is already known for having a high cost of living, it shouldn’t surprise you that earning a college degree there doesn’t come cheaply. Despite the fact that the median income is higher than other states on this list, it simply isn’t enough to make up for the fact that the average public, four-year school charged $13,303 in tuition and fees for the 2015-16 academic year.

Sadly, New Jersey college graduates are paying heavily once they leave school. At popular Kean University, for example, 73% of students graduated with average debt of $32,886 in 2014. And at Montclair University, 71% of students left school with average debt of $28,070.

The story is similar at nearly all the state’s public schools, with average debt coming in over $25,000 for more than half of students at Ramapo College of New Jersey; Rowan University; Rutgers University of Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick; the College of New Jersey; and William Patterson University of New Jersey.

6th Worst: Michigan

  • Median income: $34,736
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $11,991
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 34.5%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 18
  • Number of public community colleges: 31

When it comes to college affordability, the state of Michigan has a couple key factors working against it. First, the cost of college here has shot up during the last decade, rising from $7,931 for the 2004-05 academic year to $11,991 today. Second, wages and household incomes are lower than in the rest of the country. In 2013, the median household income in Michigan was only $48,411, compared to $53,046 nationally.

This double-whammy means students leave school with a lot of debt. At Central Michigan University, for example, 74% of 2014 graduates left school with $34,545 in debt. In the meantime, 73% of Michigan Technological University graduates entered adulthood with $36,041 in student loans that year.

Still, you could argue that in-state tuition at the state’s flagship college, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, is a relative bargain at $14,336, considering it’s ranked No. 29 in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

5th Worst: Illinois

  • Median income: $36,587
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $13,189
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 36%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 12
  • Number of public community colleges: 48

Illinois students have several factors working against them when it comes to college affordability. First, Illinois has one of the highest tuition rates in the country, even after you factor in higher-than-average wages. Second, there are very few public colleges competing for such a large population of students.

Sadly, this economic combo has been costly for students. Even at public, four-year institutions, Illinois graduates leave school with record levels of student debt. Here are some of the worst in 2014: Eastern Michigan University, where 82% left school with average debt of $31,219, Illinois State University, where 65% left school with average debt of $30,373, and Northern Illinois University, where 77% left school with an average debt load of $33,234.

4th Worst: Pennsylvania

  • Median income: $35,630
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $13,395
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 37.5%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 45
  • Number of public community colleges: 31

In Pennsylvania, the cost of college is downright expensive. Not only is in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions a staggering $13,395 on average, but even the tuition at two-year schools is a higher-than-average $4,927. That puts Pennsylvania in the top five most expensive states for four-year, public schools, and the top seven states for the cost of community college.

Sadly, expensive tuition for Pennsylvania students has meant huge sacrifices in the form of student loan debt. Even in the state’s large Pennsylvania State University system, 63% of students left school with an average debt load of $36,935 in 2014.

3rd Worst: South Carolina

  • Median income: $30,659
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $11,816
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 38.5%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 13
  • Number of public community colleges: 20

Although most people consider South Carolina affordable in terms of cost of living, its college students get the short end of the stick. This is mostly because of South Carolina’s combo of low wages and high college tuition costs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s median household income was only $44,779 through 2013, compared to $53,046 nationally. However, the cost of college tuition at a four-year, public school was still $11,816 for the 2015-16 academic year.

The outcome for some South Carolina students has been nothing short of devastating. Despite the fact that they’ll generally earn less overall if they remain in the state, South Carolina graduates experienced debt levels similar to students in other states.

At the University of South Carolina at Columbia, for example, 54% of students left school with average debt of $28,233 in 2014. And at Coastal Carolina University, 78% of students graduated $35,207 in debt.

2nd Worst: Vermont

  • Median income: $36,171
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $14,993
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 41.4%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 5
  • Number of public community colleges: 2

Whether you’re a college student or not, living in Vermont is expensive. Despite a median household income ($54,267 in 2013) that’s only slightly higher than the national median household income, the median housing value in the state was $216,800 — $40,000 more than the national average. With the high cost of living, it shouldn’t surprise you that college in Vermont isn’t cheap, either. For the 2015-16 school year, tuition and fees in Vermont took the No. 2 spot in the entire nation.

When you look at student debt figures among the state’s few schools, the consequences are clear. Among the two Vermont schools that reported this data, student debt levels were relatively high. At Vermont Technical College, a staggering 80% of students left school with around $23,530 in debt. Further, 63% of 2014 University of Vermont graduates will need to pay back $27,276 in student loans.

Worst: New Hampshire

  • Median income: $36,421
  • Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $15,160
  • Average tuition as a percent of median income: 41.6%
  • Number of public, four-year colleges: 6
  • Number of public community colleges: 7

New Hampshire’s relatively high incomes aren’t enough to make up for the fact that college tuition has surged out of control. As of the 2015-16 academic year, tuition at public, four-year schools in New Hampshire is more expensive on average than anywhere else in the nation. If you look at 2014 wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that means college tuition in New Hampshire now costs 41.6% of the median annual wage for someone working 40 hours per week.

While students in New Hampshire have access to federal student aid, state-based aid opportunities, scholarships, and grants, it’s simply not enough to keep up. This is probably why student debt levels in New Hampshire are especially high and the percentage of students who will need to repay loans continues to grow.

University of New Hampshire graduates are a perfect example. As of 2014, 79% of the school’s main-campus students left school owing a staggering $36,965. At Plymouth State University and Keene State College, 85% of students graduated with $32,327 and $33,796 in student loan debt in 2014, respectively.

This just goes to show that higher wages don’t always make up for a high cost of living or the growing costs of a college education. And in New Hampshire, young adults are saddled with challenges on both sides of the equation.

Final Thoughts

The final price of your college education depends on a lot of factors, including the type of school you choose, what degree you pursue, and yes, where you live. While student aid can take the sting out of college, it may not be enough to make up for the elevated tuition prices some state schools charge.

At the end of the day, you should do as much research as you can and explore all your options. When it comes to your education, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Consider a two-year, technical degree, steer clear of college majors that don’t pay off, and you may even weight the pros and cons of skipping college altogether.

The decisions you make can impact your future for years to come — for better or for worse. Where you live may matter more than you think, but what you do about it matters more.

Is your state on this list? How does college affordability stack up in your home state?

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