Newly minted local college graduates take part in the annual Toss Your Caps class photo Friday, May 8, 2015, on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

There are heated policy debates about how to make college more affordable and ensure students aren’t shut out by high costs. But as Congress, the president and the presidential candidates argue how best to help – and families worry – some researchers point out that national averages blur some important information. There are enormous differences from state to state in college costs for two- and four-year colleges, for out-of-state-student tuition, grant aid and other variables, Sandy Baum and Martha Johnson of the Urban Institute report — and those have been changing in recent years.

For example, while in-state students were charged an average of just over $9,000 nationally for a four-year public-college last year, students in Wyoming paid less than $5,000 a  year — and those in New Hampshire were charged nearly $15,000.

Variation across states (Courtesy of the Urban Institute)

The way those costs have changed over time is very different from state to state as well. In Louisiana, college costs shot up 56 percent from 2009 to 2015, they report, while those in Maine inched up just one percent.

State funding per student is significantly lower than it was before the recession in 2008, they found. “But funding has increased in a few states and plummeted far more than the national average in others. In some states, overall funding has sharply declined, while in other states, the challenge has been keeping up with skyrocketing postsecondary enrollment.”

In some states, such as New Hampshire and Vermont, half the students who went to college right after high school in 2012 left the state to enroll elsewhere, they noted. But in places such as Mississippi and Utah, less than 10 percent do.

Often big drops in funding are followed by more expensive prices at public colleges, but not always.

And there’s such a wide range in income across the country that can dramatically affect how much of a barrier tuition ultimately is. In 2013 the median income for a family of four in Connecticut was more than $107,000. In Arkansas and Mississippi, it was just over $58,000.

Evolution of State Funding (Courtesy of the Urban Institute)

For those who want a better understanding of the situation in their own state — or are now mulling a move to Wyoming to save on college — there’s a wealth of information about higher education costs and access at the Urban Institute’s Web site here.

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