College Affordability
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The Growing Gap, 2020 Edition

In order for more students to complete postsecondary education, they have to be able to afford it. Financial barriers can lead to gross inequities in degree attainment, as students of color, students of limited economic means, and first-generation students access and complete college at lower rates than their peers.

NCAN and its membership, committed to greater college access and success, know that many students and their families worry about how they will manage to afford higher education. NCAN’s latest affordability analysis shows this worry is justifiable and explores just how prevalent unaffordability is in higher education for recipients of the Pell Grant – a need-based award. Most Pell Grant recipients have annual personal or family incomes of less than $30,000.

Our hope is that federal and state policymakers will act purposefully to advance affordability for students and address inequities in higher education, recognizing the individual and societal benefits that result from greater educational opportunity.

NCAN debuted its affordability model in 2018, finding that nationally a great majority of four-year public institutions and state flagship institutions were out of reach for the average Pell Grant recipient in the 2016-17 academic year (AY). In 2019, NCAN expanded its analysis to examine five years of data for both two- and four-year public institutions — finding that, from 2012-13 to 2016-17, the national percentage of affordable institutions had decreased and affordability gaps for students had increased.

NCAN’s 2020 analysis shows these trends are continuing. The key takeaways of this latest research and our findings are below. You can also visit NCAN’s interactive dashboard to explore the data and trends further.

Affordability gaps over time at two- and four-year institutions.

Key Takeaways

For the average Pell Grant recipient:

  • Among public two- and four-year institutions, there were declines in the percentage of affordable institutions as well as increases in affordability gaps from 2013-14 to 2017-18.
  • By 2017-18, just 25% of four-year public institutions were affordable 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.

  • NCAN defines affordability for an institution in a given year as total price and $300 in emergency funds being less than or equal to average institutional grant aid, loans, and Federal Work-Study; the Expected Family Contribution for the average Pell Grant recipient; and summer wages.
  • Affordability trends vary both within and across states. NCAN’s interactive dashboard allows for further exploration of these trends.
  • These data sound the alarm about the availability of affordable public postsecondary options nationwide. Given the predicted state financial challenges ahead (resulting from the pandemic), and the funding cuts that could be looming for higher education, postsecondary access will become increasingly difficult for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students.

Research Findings

Affordability Model

Since 2018, NCAN has proposed that a given two- or four-year public institution’s total price plus $300 for emergency expenses should not exceed the combined total of:

  1. That institution’s average federal, state, and institutional grant award.
  2. Average federal loan disbursement.
  3. The expected family contribution of the average Pell Grant recipient.
  4. An average Federal Work-Study award.
  5. The contribution of summer wages.

Put simply, an institution is affordable if:

Affordability formula

When an institution’s total price plus $300 exceeds the sum of financial aid, family contributions, and student wages, NCAN refers to the difference between these two amounts as an “affordability gap.”

When examining four-year public institutions’ total price, this analysis uses data for in-state students living on campus; and for two-year public institutions, data on in-state students living off campus not with family. Detailed information on approach, methodology, and data, is available here.

Four-Year Public Institutions

We examine a five-year longitudinal data set of postsecondary affordability at 535 four-year public institutions from 2013-14 through 2017-18. In 2013-14, 35% of the sample was affordable according to NCAN’s formula. That figure declined to 25% in 2017-18, or 135 institutions.

At the same time, the average affordability gap for students has roughly doubled from a national average of $1,212 in 2013-14, to $2,406 in 2017-18. Figures 1 and 2 show the direction of these two trends, and the trends tell a clear story: affordable four-year institutions are becoming rarer.

Examining the data at the state level, we can consider either counts of affordable institutions or percentages of affordable institutions. Both have their drawbacks. Large states may inevitably have higher counts of affordable institutions because they have more colleges and universities overall. Small states can have higher percentages of affordable institutions by virtue of each affordable institution ticking the state’s percentage up more than in larger states. We consider both angles.

By count of affordable institutions, 36 states had five or fewer affordable four-year public institutions in every year from 2013-14 to 2017-18. Eight of these, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin, had no affordable four-year public institutions in any of the five academic years we examined. Across all states in the sample, the average number of academic years without an affordable four-year public institution was greater than 1. California, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington had the highest counts of affordable institutions.

Twenty-six states saw their percentage of affordable institutions decrease between 2013-14 and 2017-18, and in 43 states the affordability gap increased over the same time period. Among these 43 states, the average increase was $1,552. These states became relatively less affordable, according to our model. By 2017-18, the average affordability gap among these 43 states had grown to $2,595.

By contrast, six states’ percentage of affordable institutions increased between 2013-14 and 2017-18, and eight states’ average affordability gaps decreased over the same period by an average of $696. These states became relatively more affordable according to our model, but were still not absolutely affordable for students. Consider that the average affordability gap among these states in 2017-18 was still $863, even after all the sources of aid accounted for by NCAN’s formula. These states’ declining affordability gaps are encouraging; certainly they’re an improvement over the alternative, but students in these states can still have trouble finding an affordable school.

We noted in last year’s report that intrastate contexts vary tremendously. In a given state, the percentage of affordable institutions and/or the size and direction of the affordability gaps may not have trended consistently in the same direction, though in many cases they did. However, considering what affordability looked like at the end points often coincides with our national findings of steadily declining affordability. To dig deeper into any given state over the five-year period, consult NCAN’s interactive dashboard.

Two-Year Public Institutions

Two-year public institutions, more commonly referred to as community colleges, are a significant entry point into the postsecondary system. Approximately one-third of students who started their postsecondary careers in fall 2013 did so at a community college, and in fall 2017, about 30% of all postsecondary students were enrolled in a community college. These institutions’ open access mission lets students build or retool skill sets, work toward an associate degree, and in some cases transfer for a bachelor’s and beyond.

In most cases, community colleges have lower tuition than four-year public institutions. However, cheaper does not mean affordable in absolute terms, and our analysis shows that just 45% of community colleges are affordable, according to our model.

Our affordability formula is the same for community colleges as it is for four-year public institutions, except for one change to total price. Whereas with four-year public institutions we considered total price for in-state students living on campus, for two-year public institutions we consider total price for in-state students living off campus not with family.

In 2013-14, 52% of the 604 community colleges for which we have complete data were affordable according to our model. The figures below show that since then and through 2017-18, that percentage decreased to 48%. At the same time, the average affordability gap rose from $132 to $640.

Considering community college affordability by state, a few states appear across multiple academic years as having no affordable options for students. These include New Hampshire and Rhode Island (no affordable community colleges in all five years); Hawaii and Utah (four years); Vermont (three years); and Colorado (two years). As in last year’s report, 13 states had at least one year in which one or none of its community colleges were affordable. Given that students who attend these institutions tend to live nearby, the finding that students in these 13 states had at least one year in the past five in which they had access to, at best, a single affordable community college according to our model is deeply troubling.

In 28 states, the percentage of affordable community colleges decreased between 2013-14 and 2017-18, up from 25 in the previous five-year range. In 35 states, the average community college affordability gap grew between 2013-14 and 2017-18; the average increase in the affordability gap in those states was $1,098, and the average affordability gap in 2017-18 for these states was $955. This means that on average, these states went from affordable in 2013-14 to unaffordable five years later.

Meanwhile, 11 states saw their percentage of affordable community colleges increase from 2013-14 to 2017-18, and 12 states saw their affordability gaps decrease. Among those 12 states, the average decrease was $621, and the average community college in these states these states was affordable by $924 in 2016-17. These states became both relatively and absolutely more affordable, on average, in the five-year period.

Although community colleges fare better than their four-year peers according to our affordability formula, still fewer than half were affordable in the most recent year of data. For a sector whose hallmark is its accessibility, this is deeply concerning.

Recall that this formula assumes a student is contributing full-time summer wages and part-time work the rest of the year. This is not actually feasible for many students, given life’s other demands, such as contributing to their family’s income. Students should not face the choice of taking on above-average student loans or working more hours to cover the total price of their community college education. Beyond that, geographical concerns compound the access issues here. Not only are students unlikely to attend community colleges far away from where they live, those who choose to do so often pay higher tuition if they are out of that community college’s county or district zone.

Students must able to both pay for a postsecondary education and get to a postsecondary institution. For far too many students, this may not currently be the case.


Explore the Data

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?

Map of college affordability across the U.S.

More NCAN Resources