College Affordability

Download NCAN's May 2019 white paper: The Growing Gap: Public Higher Education’s Declining Affordability for Low-Income Students

College affordability is a perennial topic around kitchen tables, in the media, and for stakeholders with interest in seeing more students access and complete a postsecondary education. Low- and middle-income students and families wring their hands over the tuition bill that will come due before even setting foot on campus, as they worry about whether they can afford this investment in their future. A new NCAN analysis shows that, unfortunately, that worry is justified far too often.

The white paper considers the affordability of two- and four-year public institutions for an average Pell Grant recipient who receives the average amount of grant aid, takes out the average amount of federal loans, and collects reasonable work wages to contribute to their education.

In 2016-17, just 48% of community colleges in our sample were affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient, according to NCAN’s affordability formula. Only 27% of four-year public institutions were affordable.

From academic years 2012-13 to 2016-17, the percentage of affordable institutions declined nationally, while affordability gaps rose.

To dive deeper into the data, explore our interactive dashboard to see how affordable the colleges in your state are for Pell Grant recipients.

NCAN proposes that a given two- or four-year public institution’s total cost of attendance for an in-state student plus $300 for emergency expenses should not exceed the combined total of:

  1. That institution’s average federal, state, and institutional grant awards.
  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.

When cost of attendance and emergency expenses exceed the sum of aid, contributions, and wages, NCAN calls that difference an “affordability gap.”

From 2012-13 to 2016-17, the affordability gap for the average Pell recipient attending a public four-year institution grew from a national average of $1,174 to a national average of $2,118. Among students at two-year institutions, the average affordability gap rose from $87 to $453.

Here at NCAN, we represent nonprofits, schools, and other organizations committed to helping more low-income students and students of color enter and complete postsecondary education. Since our founding in 1995, the narrative about affordability that we hear from our members has changed for the worse, and our analysis confirms this trend.

Postsecondary affordability is a significant equity issue for low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color across the U.S. These student groups access and complete college at lower rates than their peers.

We hope that our analysis serves as a wake-up call to federal and state policymakers. This is not a problem on the margins of higher education. This is not a smattering of unaffordable institutions. This pervasive issue affects students in all 50 states. Without policy change that focuses on closing affordability gaps, the status quo of inequity will continue, denying students opportunities for economic mobility and personal and professional enrichment, and denying the public the myriad benefits associated with increasing levels of education – economic, civic, and otherwise.

NCAN members across the country work hard every day to put students on the best possible path for postsecondary success; unfortunately, those paths will continue to narrow unless policymakers act purposefully.

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