What Does Affordable Education Mean? A New Tool Aims to Define It

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Posted By Eliana Osborn on October 13, 2015 at 9:30 am
What Does Affordable Education Mean? A New Tool Aims to Define It

Politicians and activists frequently talk about making higher education more affordable.  That’s a value word though, meaning different things to different people.  Those living at the poverty line have one view of “affordable,” while families earning seven figures have an entirely separate understanding of the term.

Even the FAFSA determines an amount they say a family is expected to contribute to the cost of college .  This number is based on current family finances and savings, but has no connection to how much cash parents are prepared to shell out.

A new tool from the Lumina Foundation aims to help define affordability using a few different measures.  The Foundation explains affordability using The Rule of Ten Benchmark.  The benchmark recommends that families save for college using three components:

  • Families save ten percent of their discretionary income
  • They save those funds for ten years
  • Students work ten hours per week during college

In explaining the Rule of Ten, the Lumina Foundation says, “Most concepts of affordability are based on what college should cost, not what students can afford to pay. For example, colleges and universities often set tuition based not on what students can afford but rather on what the institutions need in terms of revenue.”

The idea of what colleges should cost or how much money they need to run has little connection to to the finances of the families and students who attend them.  There must be some understanding of real-world dollars and how college is being paid for – otherwise, the current system of higher education is unsustainable.

Instead of talking about free college , the Lumina affordability benchmark acknowledges that there are real costs for post-secondary education –  and that it is reasonable for families and individuals to have to work to afford a degree.

Making college affordable means having a conversation about the costs and benefits of higher education.  It will both require students to contribute financially to their degrees, and colleges to find ways to charge reasonable tuition.  Without give and take from both sides of the equation, the numbers will never add up .

While the Lumina Foundation affordability tool may be imperfect, it moves the conversation forward about how much families should be expected to pay for college.  It is less controversial than calls for free community college for everyone, acknowledging that money for education must come from somewhere. For families planning to help their students pay for additional schooling, the Rule of 10 benchmark is a helpful start.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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