For far too many students across the country, the experience of choosing a college is like shopping at this store. Students want the education that trusted sources extol, but especially for low-income ones, the numbers just aren’t affordable — even with financial aid.

Further barriers to a degree

“Unaffordability” isn’t isolated. It’s pervasive and pernicious, and the stakes are high.

A new National College Access Network analysis estimates that just 25 percent of four-year, public institutions in the United States are affordable for low-income students who live on campus and receive average amounts of federal, state and institutional grant aid, take out average amounts of federal loans and contribute reasonable work wages to their education. That 25 percent represents just 139 affordable institutions across all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Yet this number is misleadingly optimistic. Our analysis accounts for in-state tuition pricing, but most students can’t easily move from one state to another just to attend a more affordable college. Out-of-state tuition is much higher, residency requirements sometimes take years to satisfy and many people are reluctant to move over long distances, even for large financial benefits.

Thirty-four states have three or fewer affordable, four-year public institutions, and 17 have none. In states with at least one affordable option, there’s no guarantee a school is geographically feasible. Low-income, first-generation students are pioneering a new educational path in their families; distance is another barrier in a litany of those they’ve already overcome.

A matter of public good

This isn’t just a problem for students, it’s a problem for all of us. Public higher education has taken a funding hit in the past decade, but it still must fulfill a critical dual mission: students need education, and society needs educated citizens. Communities, states and the nation reap economic, civic and health benefits from an educated citizenry. It’s a critical public good.

Policymakers and the public should face this glaring shortage of affordable, four-year pathways. “Unaffordability” isn’t isolated. It’s pervasive and pernicious, and the stakes are high. An estimated 65 percent of jobs in 2020 will require a postsecondary degree or credential, and although there are two and four-year pathways, the latter boast the highest completion rates. With all of our investment in education and college preparation, students need affordable options so they can obtain the education that will benefit them and our country.