While noting progress in areas such as student preparation, the biennial study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education drops the country to an "F" in affordability from the "D" it received in the nonprofit group's report two years ago.
Among individual states, only California, Utah and Minnesota earned higher than a "D." California still had the top grade of any state, but its "A" from 2002 fell to a "B" in the latest report after sharp tuition increases.
The report card evaluates states on the performance of their private and public four-year schools and community colleges in five categories, with grades ranging from A to F.
On affordability, the report card contradicts some recent studies that argue increases in financial aid have kept pace with recent tuition hikes, so real college costs have stabilized.
The report card, titled "Measuring Up 2004," grades affordability in part by comparing net college costs with the average family income in each state. By that measure, the study claims, college is becoming less affordable in most states.
In New Hampshire, for instance, college costs amount to 32 percent of average family income compared to 23 percent a decade ago. In New Jersey and Oregon, colleges cost 34 percent of family income, compared to 24 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in 1994.
David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an adviser on the report, said the combination of higher prices and a population boom among college-age people is likely to bump students from four-year colleges to more affordable community colleges, and from community colleges out of the system.
"For at least another five to eight years we're looking at a real denial of opportunity," he said.
The report also claims states have made some progress over the last decade preparing students for college, as measured by such factors as the percentage of students taking advanced math and science. In West Virginia, for instance, the percentage of high schoolers taking upper level math and science courses has nearly doubled, and the percentage of eighth graders taking algebra has more than doubled to 25 percent.
But the report notes that higher education, by failing to bring more students into the system, hasn't met its end of the bargain.
"We can no longer attribute all of our college access and quality problems to the failure of public schools," said Patrick Callan, the center's president. "The fact is, high schools have improved over these last 10 years and we haven't seen commensurate higher education gains."
Travis Reindle, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said such claims are overstated.
"It's almost as though these numbers are leading us to string up the 'Mission Accomplished' banner on K-12 education," Reindle said. "I think it's a little early for that. Just because the students are taking college prep courses doesn't mean that they're getting the core competencies for college."
By Justin Pope