News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

Higher Ed Affordability Continues to Decline for Pell Recipients – Federal, State Lawmakers Must Act

Thursday, May 14, 2020  
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By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation, and Raymond AlQaisi, Policy and Advocacy Manager

We are in the grips of a global pandemic the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. The COVID-19 outbreak is the defining story of 2020 and, perhaps, our lifetime.

Despite the gravity and severity of this crisis, public health officials and political leaders assure us that our nation will succeed in stopping the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the havoc the virus leaves in its wake. At which point, we are told, the routines of everyday life will return and normalcy in our economy and society will be reestablished.

For millions of students across the country, this normalcy will include the pursuit of higher education. However, earning a degree and all of the associated benefits depends in large part on a student’s ability to afford tuition, fees, and living costs – something increasingly out of reach for many.

NCAN has contributed to the discussion of college affordability for years now, debuting an affordability model in 2018 and expanding the research in 2019, to consider how affordable public institutions are for the average Pell Grant recipient. In NCAN’s latest analysis, college affordability trends continue in a gravely unfortunate direction.

Simply put: For three consecutive years, NCAN’s research has shown that the number of affordable public institutions of higher education is decreasing and “affordability gaps” for the average Pell Grant recipient are increasing — with gradually fewer examples that buck this trend.

By 2017-18, just 25% of four-year public institutions were affordable for the average Pell recipient nationally, and the average affordability gap was $2,406. In the same year, 45% of two-year public institutions were affordable, and the average affordability gap was $640.

These findings further expose the ever-worsening state of affordability in public higher education and mark a devastating trend for the institutions that are billed as offering opportunities for economic mobility in America.

Many will not be surprised by this news. In fact, a robust majority of Americans are already of the opinion that postsecondary education is not broadly affordable for today’s students. As dispiriting as this may be, the affordability trends are merely a harbinger of things to come. The upcoming 2020-21 academic year will be the first that absorbs the full impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The truth of the matter is that the issues around college affordability have been present for decades, especially for students historically underserved by our systems of higher education: students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation college students. As the cost to attend a postsecondary institution greatly outpaces inflation (not to mention wages) and students are directly responsible for a greater share of the expense to educate through tuition, it’s more important now than ever to expand affordability.

Preceding COVID-19’s onset, affordable postsecondary options were already sparse for Pell recipients. As the full economic stress of a pandemic weighs down on state budgets across the U.S., policymakers must heed the lessons learned from the most recent economic downturn, the Great Recession. States, in particular, must not retreat from investment in higher education, nor place higher education on the chopping block to balance budgets, as seen in the past.

Our nation must move swiftly to dramatically increase the number of affordable postsecondary options for students. The decisions made by policymakers now will have consequences for the opportunity and potential of a generation of students.

As NCAN pursues its mission to close equity gaps in postsecondary attainment, a core pillar of our strategy is to promote student-centered federal and state policies — such as remedying these affordability challenges. In the immediate term, NCAN calls on Congress to take action and appropriate more funding for the Education Stabilization Fund, as designated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (Public Law No: 116-136). Despite billions of dollars in federal relief, the outlook for higher education is still uncertain.

Finally, when regular legislative activities resume, members of Congress must take decisive action to address college affordability in the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the primary federal law governing higher education. NCAN urges policymakers to simplify the student aid application process and make strong investments in affordability, such as reversing the declining purchasing power of the Pell Grant, the cornerstone of federal investment in undergraduate students. As for states, NCAN supports policies to ensure affordability through a robust funding of higher education and need-based aid programs.

Ultimately, through the pandemic and beyond, the federal government and states must work together to prioritize higher education and affordability for all students.


Our interactive Growing Gap dashboard allows you to dive deeper into affordability data at the national, state, and institutional levels. How does your state stack up when it comes to college affordability for Pell Grant recipients?

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