NCAN Report: Shrinking Options, Growing Affordability Gaps for Low-Income Students Nationwide

May 29, 2019

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

There is, and has been, a tension in higher education between the public’s understanding of the benefits (financial and otherwise) of postsecondary attainment and their lack of ability to afford it. Headlines and news reports often focus on the high cost of tuition and large amounts of aggregate student debt, which add to students’ concerns about paying for higher education.

A new National College Access Network analysis shows that students are right to be concerned: Affordability is decreasing at two- and four-year public institutions, whose mission is to provide a postsecondary pathway to benefit individuals and the public at large. 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.

In “The Growing Gap: Public Higher Education’s Declining Affordability for Low-Income Students,” 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) and the contribution of summer wages.

Even by this generous standard, students in many states would find their affordability prospects discouraging. When cost of attendance and emergency expenses exceed the sum of aid, contributions, and wages, NCAN calls that difference an “affordability gap.”

Concurrent with the release of “The Growing Gap,” NCAN is also launching an interactive online data dashboard that displays affordability at the national, state, and institutional levels. Policymakers and the public should use this tool to explore the data and better understand the need for policy change to address postsecondary affordability.

The new report goes beyond the national level and considers affordability within states. Consider the following about the number and percentage of affordable institutions by state and the size of affordability gaps:

  • Eight states (Arizona, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin) had no affordable four-year public institutions in any of the five academic years NCAN examined.

  • 36 states had five or fewer affordable four-year public institutions from 2012-13 to 2016-17.

  • 23 states saw their percentage of affordable institutions decrease between 2012-13 and 2016-17.

  • Over the same time period, 40 states saw their affordability gap increase over by an average of $1,385.

  • The following states had zero affordable community colleges in the academic years NCAN considered:
    • New Hampshire and Rhode Island (no affordable community colleges in all five years)
    • Maryland (four years)
    • Hawaii, Utah, and Vermont (three years)
    • Nevada (two years)

  • In 25 states, the percentage of affordable community colleges decreased between 2012-13 and 2016-17.

  • In 36 states, the average community college affordability gap grew between 2012-13 and 2016-17; the average increase in the affordability gap in those states was $1,176.

“This research shows that even under generous circumstances, students would face affordability challenges at far too many institutions in far too many states. Too often, the students who could most benefit from postsecondary education are those least likely to be able to overcome unmet need,” says Kim Cook, NCAN’s executive director.

NCAN’s new report builds on “Shutting Low-Income Students Out of Four-Year Public Higher Education,” released in May 2018, by adding two-year public institutions to the analysis and further expanding its scope by examining the five most recent academic years for which data are available.

Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s director of data and evaluation and co-author of the report, notes: “If policymakers at the state and federal levels fail to act on college access as a moral and financial imperative, they do so to the detriment not just of individuals and families but of communities, states, and the nation at large.”

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