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The Organizational Ecology of College Affordability: Research Activity, State Grant Aid Policies, and Student Debt at U.S. Public Universities

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Sociologists have theorized U.S. universities as a heterogenous organizational ecology. We use this lens to compare student debt and college prices for low-income students across public universities according to their research intensiveness and varied state grant aid policies. We show that students at research-intensive public universities have had an easier time repaying student loans than at other schools. By linking multiple data sets, we also provide the first comprehensive assessment for all 50 states of state-level need-based grant aid programs, which might alleviate loan repayment challenges. We find large disparities. California, Washington, Wyoming, and New Jersey spent more than $4,000 on aid per low-income student in 2015, more than the federal expenditure on Pell Grants for their state. Most states spend little in comparison. Contra the Bennett hypothesis, we also find that state need-based aid is strongly associated with both lower net prices and lower student loan nonrepayment rates.

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