America's top public universities, known as flagships, are generally the most well-resourced public universities in their respective states — think the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor or the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They're rigorous schools, and many were built on federal land grants meant to serve the "industrial classes." Today, only four public flagship universities are affordable for students from low-income families, according to a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
Access to public universities can be critical for low-income students because those institutions can serve as engines for upward mobility. And these schools aren't living up to their responsibility to remain affordable, says Mamie Voight, one of the study's authors from IHEP.
"They are a public institution. They are funded by state taxpayer dollars," she explains. "They have an incredibly important role to play in both preparing the workforce for tomorrow and educating the workforce for tomorrow."
While the definition of what makes a school a flagship is a little murky, many are the main campus of a larger statewide system. Flagship universities receive almost 40% more state funding per full-time undergraduate student than other public four-year schools. They also tend to have higher graduation rates.
A combination of factors makes many of these schools unaffordable for low-income students. State funding for higher education suffered big cuts during the Great Recession, which contributed to tuition increases. Another factor: The federal Pell Grant program, which helps students "who display exceptional financial need," hasn't kept pace with the increased cost of college. In many states, need-based grants and scholarship aid awarded by the state and public institutions don't make up the difference.