Public 4-year schools and community colleges are becoming less affordable: report

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • According to a new analysis, the share of public higher education institutions affordable to students from low-income families shrunk between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 academic years.
  • The National College Attainment Network found that only 23% of 490 public four-year were affordable by 2018-19. The share was higher for community colleges, with NCAN considering 41% of 514 such schools to be reasonable that year.
  • NCAN is among the dozens of higher ed groups calling on the Biden administration to double the maximum Pell Grant award and index it to inflation to improve college access.

Dive Insight:

NCAN considers a public college to be affordable if its total in-state cost of attendance plus $300 in emergency expenses are lower than the combination of the institution’s average grant awards, the average federal loan disbursement, and Federal Work-Study award, the expected family contribution of the average Pell Grant recipient and summer wages.

“The formula is designed to show the student is doing everything right,” said Carrie Warick, NCAN’s director of policy and advocacy. “They’re taking advantage of all the opportunities available to fund their education, and they’re still unable to meet those requirements.”


Over the five years studied, the share of affordable community colleges fell from 49% to 41%, while the portion of affordable four-year publics dropped from 31% to 23%. Affordability gaps — or how much NCAN’s student funding formula fell short of paying for the cost of attendance plus emergency expenses — also grew.

The average affordability gap at community colleges more than tripled during the period studied, reaching $855 by the 2018-19 academic year. Meanwhile, the average affordability gap in public-four years roughly doubled to $2,524. “That’s a significant chunk for a student who was already working and taking out a loan,” Warick said.

Affordability varied widely by state. Florida, Washington, and New Mexico were among the states with the highest shares of affordable colleges based on NCAN’s sample. In a few states — including Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — fewer than 5% of the colleges were affordable.

President Joe Biden is pitching several ways to make college more affordable. He unveiled his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which would use $109 billion to complete two years of community college free for students seeking a degree or credential. It would also use $80 billion to add up to $1,400 to the maximum value of the Pell Grant, which is $6,495 for the next academic year.

That increase, plus the additional $400 that Biden’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Education would add to the Pell Grant, would cover the average affordability gap at community colleges, Warick noted. It would also cover roughly three-fourths of the average interval at public four years.

Progressive lawmakers have pitched their free college plans in recent weeks. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., reintroduced the College for All Act, which would provide free tuition for community colleges and some students free education at four-year public and private minority-serving institutions. It would also double the value of the maximum Pell Grant.

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