How COVID-19 impacts ALICE: Learn More


click to view

Health Care

click to view

Child Care and Education

click to view


click to view


click to view


click to view


click to view


Income is highly correlated with education level. Nationally, the difference in lifetime earnings between high school graduates and those who hold a bachelor’s degree is estimated to be $830,800. Yet higher education is out of reach for many Americans. About 70 percent of low-income students attend college immediately after high school, compared to 80 percent of children from high-income families.43

Students in ALICE families encounter numerous obstacles to attaining higher education, including:

Education Attainment and Median Annual Earnings, U.S., 2017

Source: American Community Survey. (2017). 1-, 3-, and 5-year estimates

What do families do if they can't afford college?

Not Attend College

While more students from low-income families are going to college, they still lag behind students from wealthier families. Among recent high school graduates from families earning below $30,000 per year, 63 percent enrolled in a college in 2016, compared to 82 percent of students from families earning above $100,000 per year.46 And for many ALICE families, college is still completely out of reach.

Child Care and Education icon


Lower lifetime earnings: The difference in the net lifetime earnings of a high school graduate versus a high school dropout in the U.S. is more than $305,000.47 Men with bachelor’s degrees earn approximately $900,000 more than male high school graduates ($630,000 for women with bachelor’s degrees). The cost of not attending college is greater for young adults today than it has been in the past:48

  • 1965: College graduates earned 15 percent more than high school graduates
  • 1995: College graduates earned 36 percent more than high school graduates
  • 2013: College graduates earned 51 percent more than high school graduates

Increased financial hardship: Young adults entering today’s labor force without a college degree face increasing levels of financial hardship. In 2017, 25 percent of people aged 25 and older with no high school diploma lived in poverty, compared to 13 percent of high school graduates and 5 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.49

Poorer health in the future: Not completing college — which leads to both less income and more stress — has been linked to poor health outcomes.50

Loss of educational advancement for parents: ALICE parents who are also students risk leaving college with no degree; 53 percent of parents, compared to 31 percent of nonparents, leave college with no degree after six years.51 Parents in college face additional challenges:

  • Increased expenses due to college tuition
  • Increased demands on time for work, study, and parenting
  • Difficulty finding child care on or near campus (one study found that over half of parents attending school full time relied on family members to provide child care)52

Work or Take out a Student Loan

Increasingly, students work while attending college. In addition, more students take out a student loan to pay tuition.53

Child Care and Education, Housing, Health Care icons


Not enough money for basics needs: The majority of students who experience food insecurity (68 percent), housing insecurity (69 percent), and homelessness (67 percent) work, and typically work more hours than other students.54

Increased debt: Student loan debt is often a reason young adults become ALICE. Two out of three students (65 percent) who graduated from public and private colleges in 2017 had student loan debt and owed an average of $28,650 (ranging from $18,850 in Utah to $38,500 in Connecticut).55

Increased likelihood of dropping out: Cost is the number one reason students drop out of college. Either they cannot work enough hours or borrow enough money, or the stress of working and studying becomes too much to manage.56

Impact on credit rating: With high loan default rates, students can jeopardize not only their current financial status but their future ability to borrow and save. Nationally, there are 8.9 million federal loan recipients in default — a record high — with an additional 1 million student borrowers defaulting each year. Graduates from low-income families are five times more likely to default on their student loans than higher-income graduates.57

Increased mental and physical health problems: Inability to repay student debt can lead to increased stress levels or contribute to poor physical health Care.58

Less money for current expenses or savings: Money spent on debt means that less money is available for other basic needs or especially emergencies. Students who need to borrow are also more likely not just to be working, but to be working long hours and doing without basic needs. A recent report highlighted high rates of student food and housing insecurity and even homelessness — especially among working students.59

Fewer savings and a delayed financial future: Struggling to cover current costs, young workers with student debt increasingly delay buying a home or saving for retirement. Millennials are starting families and buying homes later than previous generations.60

Attend Community/For-Profit College

Students from low-income families are more likely than their wealthier peers to attend two-year community colleges or private for-profit colleges, in associate degree or certificate programs. Low-income students made up half of students at public two-year colleges and 61 percent at private for-profit institutions compared to only 27 percent at private nonprofit four-year colleges.61 While community colleges often provide a vital lifeline for low-income students, both two-year and for-profit colleges can have drawbacks.

Child Care and Education icon


Lower financial returns. Median earnings for students with an associate degree or certificate are lower than earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.62

Slower path to completion. Fewer than 40 percent of community college students earn a certificate or degree within six years of enrollment, delaying or preventing them from realizing future earning potential. Completing an associate degree correlates with a 37 percent increase in earnings compared to only earning a high school diploma.63

At for-proft colleges, the possibility of lower earnings and higher debt. Because a large share of students at for-profit colleges borrow money to attend but drop out without their certificate or degree, they do not qualify for higher paid jobs yet still have to manage sizable student loans. In fact, many are worse off than those who did not attend higher education at all.64


Burdick-Will, J. (2015). Johns Hopkins sociologist challenges common assumptions about school choice. Retrieved from

Carnevale, A. P., & Smith, N. (2018). Balancing work and learning: Implications for low-income students. Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from

Carnevale, A., Rose, S., & Cheah, B. (2014). The college payoff: Education, occupations, lifetime earnings. Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from

Shanks, T. R. (2011, October). Over stressed kids: Examining the impact of economic insecurity on children and families. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from

Cooper, P. (2018, February 26). College enrollment surges among low-income students. Forbes. Retrieved from

Desilver, D. (2014, January 15). College enrollment among low-income students still trails richer groups. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Abel, J., Deitz, R., & Su, Y. (2014). Are recent college graduates finding good jobs? Current Issues in Economics and Finance, 20(1), 1–8. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center. (2014). The rising cost of not going to college, Chapter 1: Education and economic outcomes among the young. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2018, September 12). Income and poverty in the United States: 2017. Retrieved from

Center on Society and Health. (2015). Why education matters to health: Exploring the causes. Retrieved from

Zimmerman, E. B., Woolf, S. H., & Haley, A. (2015). Understanding the relationship between education and health: A review of the evidence and an examination of community perspectives. In Kaplan R, Spittel M, David D (Eds), Population Health: Behavioral and Social Science Insights. AHRQ Publication No. 15-0002, pp. 347-384. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, National Institutes of Health; July 2015.

Institute for Women’s Policy Research. (2013). College students with children are common and face many challenges in completing higher education. Retrieved from

Spaulding, S., Derrick-Mills, T., & Callan, T. (2016, January). Supporting parents who work and go to school. Urban Institute. Retrieved from

ABODO. (2017, May 25). The old college try: A look at working students across the country. Retrieved from (2018). The value of education, the price of success. Retrieved from

Goldrick-Rab, S., Baker-Smith, C., Coca, V., Looker, E., & Williams, T. (2019, April). College and university basic needs insecurity: A national #RealCollege survey report. The Hope Center.

The Institute for College Access & Success. (2018, September 19). Student debt and the Class of 2017. Retrieved from

Matthiessen, C. (2019, January 9). Why are so many college students returning home? Retrieved from

The Institute for College Access & Success. (2018, September 19). Student debt and the Class of 2017. Retrieved from

The Institute for College Access & Success. (2018, September 19). Student debt and the Class of 2017. Retrieved from

Goldrick-Rab, S., Baker-Smith, C., Coca, V., Looker, E., & Williams, T. (2019, April). College and university basic needs insecurity: A national #RealCollege survey report. The Hope Center.

Lew, I. (2015, November). Student loan debt and the housing decisions of young households (Research Brief). Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Retrieved from

Summer and Student Debt Crisis. (2018, November 1). Buried in debt: A national survey report on the state of student loan borrowers in 2018. Retrieved from

Fry, R., & Cilluffo, A. (2019, May 22). A rising share of undergraduates are from poor families, especially at less selective colleges. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

American Community Survey. (2017). 2017; 1-, 3-, and 5-Year estimates. Retrieved from U.S. Census Bureau:

Levesque, E. M. (2018, October 8). Improving community college completion rates by addressing structural and motivational barriers. Brookings. Retrieved from

Cellini, S. R., & Turner, N. (2016, May; revised January 2018). Gainfully employed? Assessing the employment and earnings of for-profit college students using administrative data (NBER Working Paper No. 22287). The National Bureau of Economic Research.