Where is it most expensive to attend a state school in the United States?

In short: in states with lower living standards.

The Economist recently compared the cost of an undergraduate degree in the UK to that in the United States, in light of discussions to raise the tuition fee limit for expedited two-year degree programmes. They argued that, when compared to many states, a British degree was quite affordable.

Interested only in in-state tuition fees (there being no equivalent in the UK), states such as New York and Mississippi have very similar costs of a four-year degree. And yet, financial support available from families and potential future income vary greatly.

The relationship between the face value of an in-state education and GDP per capita was explored – as a representation of living standards, e.g. potential family support and future income (assuming one had resided in the state for quite some time, and/or remained following graduation).

A significantly different picture emerges: as four-year tuition increases, so does the fraction of GDP per capita it consumes. On the whole, education is no less expensive (by regional accessibility) in states that charge lower fees.

Regardless of the face-value cost of a degree, tuition (as a fraction of GDP per capita) is greater in states with a lower GDP per capita. In the accompanying figure the GDPs of states are represented by both colour and size: it would appear that within certain ‘bands’ (± $5k USD) in-state tuition scales linearly with GDP per capita. The band with the lowest GDP bracket also has the highest starting fraction [intercept]; although it scales in a similar fashion to higher brackets, this results in a higher burden overall. What remains unclear is how this is dependent on different support, services, and resources offered by higher education institutions.

There are a few notable exceptions: South Carolina, despite having one of the lowest GDPs per capita, has one of the highest tuition fee burdens. Face-value tuition rates in Washington, D.C. are very similar to those in Arkansas, despite a GDP per capita 400% greater.

If the UK were a US state, it would most likely be categorised into the lowest GDP bracket with its overall higher real burden. In fact, by this metric, the cost of an undergraduate degree in the UK is more expensive than in 70% of states (despite being a three years commitment, contrasting four in the US). This contrasts The Economist, that postulated British students should buck up for increased annual fees on the basis that, compared to many of their American colleagues, they fared pretty well.

All of this highlights challenges to enabling equal access to education in the US, as well as the under-valued cost of an education for a domestic British student.

Sources: The College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges, US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

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