Year after year, we hear how the cost of college is ballooning out of control. But, is it true?
After mulling this question over, I would have to say yes… and no. The truth is, college affordability is as complex as it is local. Just like income and cost of living, the cost of college can vary drastically from region to region – and even state to state.
For example, figures from College Board’s 2015 Trends in College Pricing report show that in-state tuition and fees at public, four-year institutions across the country increased an average of 3.4% per year beyond inflation over the past several years.
However, tuition increases weren’t spread evenly across all states: In 18 states, in-state tuition and fees at public, four-year schools either decreased or increased less than 10% from 2010 to 2016, while 11 states saw average tuition prices increase 20% or more. Depending on where you live, that’s a huge disparity in the way college numbers are moving – for better or for worse.
When it comes to college affordability, where you live matters. Where increased competition and ample college choice may be a factor in some regions, broader tax-funded investments in education keep tuition low in others. In some areas, high wages help make average-priced tuition relatively affordable to middle-class earners. Some states’ constitutions even guarantee affordable tuition for all.
Best States for College Affordability: 2015-2016
Intrigued yet? So were we, which is why we crunched the numbers to see which state’s residents had the most affordable college tuition for the 2015-16 school year.
To measure affordability, we compared the average in-state tuition at each state’s public, four-year colleges with its median wages according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (median incomes are based on a 40-hour week).
Here are our top states for affordable college tuition in 2015-2016:
No. 10: North Carolina
- Median income: $32,510
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $6,973
- Average tuition as percent of median income: 21.4%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 16
- No. of public community colleges: 61
Between the 2010-11 and 2015-16 school years, average tuition for four-year schools in North Carolina inched up from $5,827 to $6,973. While that’s a 20% surge in just five years, it wasn’t enough to knock North Carolina off our list of affordable college states.
North Carolina’s biggest asset may be the sheer number of public, four year schools competing for students. In 2015, the state’s list of public, four-year schools was made up entirely by the University of North Carolina system, which boasts 16 universities from its mountains to the coast.
Further, North Carolina is one of two states whose constitution demands that college tuition should be as close to free as possible (Wyoming is the other). Because of that pledge, schools in both states receive above-average state revenue they can use to offset tuition prices.
No. 9: Florida
- Median income: $31,054.40
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $6,360
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 20.4%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 39
- No. of public community colleges: 63
In a big state like Florida, educational access and competition may be the key to the overall affordability of its colleges and schools. In total, 39 public, four-year institutions were competing for students in 2015 – including popular schools like the University of Florida, Florida State College at Jacksonville, and Florida State University. The state’s disproportionately high number of two-year schools also helps to spur competition, offering both additional school options and a lower price tag for in-state students.
College affordability in Florida may also be pinned to disproportionately high tuition prices for out-of-state students. At Florida State University, for example, in-state tuition was $6,507 for in-state students for the 2014-15 school year, while the cost surged to $21,673 for out-of-state students. In other words, foreign or out-of-state students who spend about three times more to attend college in sunny Florida may be subsidizing those who already live in the state.
No. 8: North Dakota
- Median income: $36,920
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $7,688
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 20.8%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 9
- No. of public community colleges: 8
Based on a median hourly wage of $17.75 and average in-state tuition of just $7,688, the state of North Dakota easily took the eighth spot on our list. And that might have to do with just how little tuition in North Dakota has increased during the last five years. The 2010-11 school year saw average tuition prices of $7,191, and that figure had only risen a few hundred dollars by 2015.
Meanwhile, extremely low tuition at a few popular North Dakota schools may be keeping the state’s overall average down. At Bismarck State College, for example, tuition and fees for the 2014-15 school year came in at just $3,520 for in-state students.
No. 7: Montana
- Median income: $31,512
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $6,351
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 20.1%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 6
- No. of public community colleges: 13
Despite having relatively few public colleges and community colleges, Montana has kept college tuition affordable for in-state students. That may be coming at the expense of out-of-state students, however. As with several other states on our list, tuition prices for out-of-state students in Montana appear to be disproportionately high. For example, Montana residents can attend the University of Montana for just $6,800 per year, but out-of-state residents need to pay $21,391.
With just a small number of state schools, very cheap colleges have a way of bringing the average cost down, too. In the state of Montana, tuition at the University of Montana – Western was just $4,761 for in-state students during the 2014-15 school year.
No. 6: New Mexico
- Median income: $31,803
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $6,355
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 19.9%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 9
- No. of public community colleges: 21
In New Mexico, the cost of college hasn’t increased that much during the past five years – or even the last decade. According to the College Board, average tuition in New Mexico for the 2004-05 school years was $4,926; it’s inched up to $6,355 over the past 10 years.
The fact that New Mexico has kept the cost of its public colleges from surging out of control has played a huge role in how affordable it remains today. Realistically, this outcome is partly due to the fact that the state of New Mexico has made higher education a priority: According to Pew Research analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, New Mexico was one of the top 10 states in the nation when it comes to state funding per full-time student for the fiscal year 2013, the most recent data available.
No. 5: Nevada
- Median income: $33,559
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $6,667
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 19.8 percent
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 6
- No. of public community colleges: 4
In the state of Nevada, the small number of public, four-year schools available is inconsequential; it’s the low tuition rates offered by the schools themselves that makes this state such a good deal. At the College of Southern Nevada, for example – a school with more than 35,000 students — in-state tuition came in at just $2,700 in 2015.
Like other states on this list, tuition prices in Nevada haven’t budged much during the last five years, either. During the 2010-11 school year, the average cost at a four-year state school was $5,822 – just $845 less than the average for 2015-16. And that slow growth has been extremely beneficial for students who hope to earn an affordable degree in the Silver State.
No. 4: Utah
- Median income: $33,696
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $6,363
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 18.8%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 7
- No. of public community colleges: 9
Although Utah is only home to 16 public universities and community colleges, tuition remains extremely affordable as a percentage of the local median income.
Despite excellent affordability overall, a handful of Utah schools keep average prices even lower. At Snow College in Ephraim, Utah residents can earn a four-year degree for just $3,388 per year as of the 2014-15 school year. In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s only $13,552 for all four years of college tuition!
No. 3: New York
- Median income: $40,872
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $7,644
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 18.7%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 45
- No. of public community colleges: 43
When it comes to any kind of affordability, New York may not naturally come to mind. However, high median wages, a huge network of public colleges, and ample state funding for higher education have made New York a welcome refuge from out-of-reach tuition rates commonly found in the Northeast.
New York is home to the nation’s largest comprehensive system of public higher education, the State University of New York system (SUNY). In 2014, the SUNY system enrolled 459,550 students across 64 separate campuses, most of which boasted annual tuition rates that were even lower than the state’s average.
No. 2: Alaska
- Median income: $45,198
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $6,571
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 14.5%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 3
- No. of public community colleges: 2
Although Alaska is sparsely populated and light on college options, the schools that call it home offer incredibly low tuition rates in relation to the median wage of $21.73 per hour. Students who opt for a four-year degree from a public school in Alaska can choose from three different University of Alaska campuses – all with affordable tuition and located in the populated cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Juneau area.
Another reason college in Alaska is so affordable may be the state’s dedication to keeping it that way. According to analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts, Alaska spent the most state revenue per full-time student compared to other states in the nation in 2013. And in the end, state funding plays a huge role in college affordability.
No. 1: Wyoming
- Median income: $37,773
- Average in-state tuition for public, four-year institutions: $4,891
- Average tuition as a percent of median income: 12.9%
- No. of public, four-year colleges: 1
- No. of public community colleges: 7
As mentioned, Wyoming is one of two states in the nation with a constitution that demands affordable college tuition for its residents. As such, tuition at the state’s one public, four-year school – the University of Wyoming – was just $4,891 for the 2015-16 school year.
And out-of-state students get a pretty good deal, too; as of 2015, outside residents could attend the University of Wyoming for $14,876 per year. That’s less than in-state tuition at the University of New Hampshire.
Further, students who live far from the campus in Laramie don’t have to despair. Because the state is rural and so sparsely populated, the University of Wyoming offers one of the most robust online degree programs in the nation. Through the University of Wyoming’s outreach school, students can participate in eight bachelor’s programs, 12 master’s programs, and 3 doctoral degree programs – all from the comfort of their own homes.
- Related: Most Affordable Online Colleges
While the common narrative tells us that college is obscenely expensive, that isn’t always the case. With healthy competition, thriving state university systems, and larger than average investments in higher education, some states boast public colleges well within reach of their residents’ budgets. And at the end of the day, where you live matters.
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How does your state rank? Was your college degree affordable?