College affordability is a major national issue and receives extensive media coverage. Indeed, the cost of attending college has been rising for many years. A 2015 survey showed that more than three-quarters of American adults do not think education beyond high school is affordable for everyone who needs it. But how do we define an “affordable” college education?

It should be possible to define affordability more clearly, and to use this definition to benchmark the performance of higher education systems. In other words, we should move beyond philosophical debates about affordability to a more rigorous and transparent definition that can be used to inform the ongoing policy conversation.

Defining a Benchmark

Most concepts of affordability begin, not with the student, but with the institution. Colleges and universities typically set tuition based not on what students can afford, but on what revenue the institutions need. Conversations about affordability thus begin with what price the college has set, move on to what grant aid is available, and ultimately wind up with what students are left to pay.

The student-centered model proposed here takes the opposite tack. It begins with what students can reasonably contribute, and then suggests that the system be built around their needs.

We propose that students should pay no more for college than the savings generated through 10 percent of discretionary income for 10 years and the earnings from working 10 hours a week while in school. This benchmark essentially creates a sliding scale of students’ ability to pay. A student from a family whose income is less than 200 percent of the poverty rate is expected to contribute no more than he or she can earn in 10 hours of work per week.

It is our hope that the affordability benchmark will contribute to the ongoing policy dialogue about college affordability in the coming months and years. However, instead of these conversations being shrouded in ambiguity, they can be grounded in a more specific, practical definition of affordability.

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